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Tests for salivary gland cancer

Men and women discussing salivary gland cancer

This page tells you about the tests you may have for salivary gland cancer. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what’s on this page

Tests for salivary gland cancer

If you are worried about symptoms, you should begin by seeing your GP. After examining you and asking about your symptoms, your doctor may refer you to hospital for tests and X-rays, or refer you directly to a specialist. The specialist will arrange for you to have tests.

X-ray

If you have a lump or swelling near your jaw you may have X-rays of your jaw and teeth. This may be a normal X-ray or a special X-ray called an orthopantomogram (OPG or OPT).

Fine needle aspiration cytology (FNAC)

If your doctor can feel a lump, you may have a fine needle aspiration. This means putting a thin needle into the lump. Sometimes the doctor may use an ultrasound scan to help guide the needle to the right place. The doctor draws out cells and fluid. This all goes off to the lab, where a pathologist examines it for cancerous cells.

Ultrasound scan

You may have this scan to look at your neck. It uses sound waves to create pictures of your body.

MRI scan

This uses magnetism to build up a picture. Soft tissue shows up more clearly on this scan than on other types of scans. It is a very useful test for salivary gland cancers.

Incisional biopsy

You might have this test if the doctor thinks you could have cancer of the minor salivary glands. They remove a small piece of the abnormal area with a surgical knife.

 

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

 

 

Seeing your GP

If you are worried about symptoms, start by seeing your GP. Your doctor will examine you and ask about your general health. They will also ask about symptoms you have, when you get them, and if anything makes them better or worse.

Your doctor will examine your mouth and throat. They may also feel the lymph nodes (glands) in your neck and under your arms. After examining you, your doctor may refer you to hospital for tests and X-rays. Or you may have an appointment to see a specialist before any tests. This is usually a head and neck surgeon.

 

Tests at the hospital

At the hospital the specialist is likely to

  • Ask about your medical history and any symptoms you have
  • Look in your mouth and feel the lymph glands in your neck
  • Arrange for you to have blood tests to check your general health

After examining you the specialist will arrange for you to have the following tests, usually as an outpatient

X-ray

If you have a lump or swelling near your jaw you may have X-rays of your jaw and teeth. This may be a normal X-ray or a special X-ray called an orthopantomogram (OPG or OPT). This type of X-ray takes pictures right around the upper jawbone (maxilla) and lower jawbone (mandible). It can pick up any signs of cancer or other problems in the jaw or teeth which may cause a lump in and around these bones. Your doctor may call it a Panorex scan.

Fine needle aspiration cytology

The only way to make a final diagnosis of salivary gland cancer is to take a sample of tissue from the area and examine it under a microscope to look for signs of cancer. The usual way to do this is by putting a thin needle into the lump to draw off some cells and fluid. To do this your specialist is likely to use an ultrasound scan to help guide the needle to the right place. They send the sample to the lab where a pathologist examines it to see if it is cancer. This test is called fine needle aspiration cytology (FNA or FNAC). If the results are not clear your doctor may need to repeat this test.

Ultrasound scan

You may have this scan to look at your neck. It uses sound waves to create pictures of your body. There is more about having an ultrasound scan in the section about cancer tests.

MRI scan

You may have an MRI scan. This uses magnetism to build up a picture. Soft tissue shows up more clearly on this scan than on other types of scans. It is a very useful test for salivary gland cancers. There is detailed information on our page about MRI scans.

Incisional biopsy

An incisional biopsy is when a small piece of the abnormal area is removed with a surgical knife. It is then examined under a microscope. You might have this test if your doctor thinks you have cancer of the minor salivary glands.

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Updated: 24 June 2014