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Further tests for mouth cancer

Men and women discussing mouth cancer

This page tells you about tests you may have if you are diagnosed with a cancer of the mouth or oropharynx. You can go to information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Further tests for mouth cancer

This page tells you about tests you may have once you have been diagnosed with a cancer of the mouth or oropharynx. These further tests help your doctor to check whether the cancer has spread from where it started. They also help them to decide on the treatment you need. The tests you may have include

  • A chest X-ray
  • Scans – either a CT scan, an MRI scan or an ultrasound scan to give a detailed picture of the size of your cancer and whether it has spread
  • A panorex X-ray (orthopantomogram) which takes pictures of the upper and lower jawbones and surrounding area
  • A barium swallow if you have difficulty swallowing solid food – you swallow a liquid that contains barium to show up the outline of any abnormal growth on X-ray
  • A PET-CT scan, which combines a CT scan and a PET scan

You will probably feel anxious after your tests when you are waiting for your results. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you are feeling. Or you may want to contact a cancer support group.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Diagnosing mouth cancer section.

 

 

Why you might have more tests

Further tests help to find the size of the cancer and check whether it has spread. This helps your doctor to decide on the treatment you need. The most common place for mouth or oropharyngeal cancers to spread is to the lymph nodes in the neck. Tissue fluid circulates around the body organs, drains into lymph vessels and is carried to the lymph nodes. If any cancer cells have broken away, they can be carried in tissue fluid to the lymph nodes nearby.

 

Chest X-ray

You need to have a routine chest X-ray if you are going to have surgery under general anaesthetic. But your doctor may also take a chest X-ray to check whether the cancer has spread to the lungs. This is very unlikely unless your cancer is in the advanced stages.

 

CT scan

A CT scan is a computerised scan using a series of X-rays to build up a 3 dimensional picture of an area of the body. You may have a CT scan of your head and neck, your chest or your abdomen. The head and neck CT will show the size of the cancer and any enlarged lymph nodes in the neck. A chest and abdominal CT may show other signs of cancer spread. We have detailed information about having a CT scan.

 

MRI scan

An MRI scan is a very useful test for mouth and oropharyngeal cancers. This type of scan uses magnetism to build up a picture. Soft tissue shows up more clearly on this scan than on a CT scan. We have information about having an MRI scan.

 

Ultrasound scan

You may have this scan to look at the lymph nodes in your neck. This scan uses sound waves to create pictures of your body. Sometimes you will have an ultrasound done at the same time as a fine needle aspiration. There is more about having an ultrasound scan in the cancer tests section.

 

Orthopantomogram (OPG or OPT)

This type of X-ray takes pictures of the area around the upper jawbone (maxilla) and lower jawbone (mandible) and the surrounding area. It can pick up any signs of cancer in and around these bones. It is also a useful way of seeing if you need any dental work done before treatment starts. Your doctor may call this test a Panorex scan.

 

PET-CT Scan

A PET-CT scan combines a CT scan and a PET scan into one scan. A CT scan takes pictures from all around your body and uses a computer to put them together. A PET scan uses a very small amount of an injected radioactive drug to show structures in the body. You may have this test if cancer cells have been found in the lymph glands in your neck but your doctor doesn't know which part of the mouth or oropharynx they have come from. 

A PET-CT scan can sometimes help to show a cancer that other scans have not been able to find. We have detailed information about having a PET-CT scan.

 

Barium swallow

A barium swallow is a type of X-ray investigation. This is not a very common test but you may have it if you are having difficulty swallowing solid food. It helps the doctor investigate the area around the voice box (larynx) and the top of the food pipe (oesophagus).

You swallow a liquid that contains barium. Barium shows up the outline of the inside of the digestive system very clearly on X-ray. You have a series of X-rays as the barium passes through. Any abnormal growth will show up on the X-ray. We have information about having a barium swallow.

 

After the tests

After your tests you will probably feel anxious when you are waiting for the results. The results may take a little time, although sometimes only a week or so. When your test results have come through, your specialist will ask you to go back to the hospital to discuss them. You and your specialist will then decide on a course of treatment.

While you are waiting for results, it may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel. You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Or you may want to contact a cancer support group to talk to someone who has been through a similar experience. Look at the mouth cancer organisations list for details of people who can support you. They can also give information about support groups or counselling services near you.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat, our online forum. Or you can go through My Wavelength. This is a free service that aims to put people with similar medical conditions in touch with each other.

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Updated: 14 October 2014