Fine needle aspiration (FNA)

This is the most common test for salivary gland cancer. It is the only way to find out what is causing the lump or swelling.

What it is

Your doctor uses a fine needle to take a sample of cells from the lump or affected area.

A pathologist then looks at the cells through a microscope to find out exactly what the abnormality is.

Before your fine needle aspiration

Check your appointment letter for how to prepare for your fine needle aspiration. You are able to eat and drink before your test. Take your medications as normal.

If you are taking any blood thinning medication you might need to stop these before the test. Your doctor will tell you when to stop taking them.

What happens?

This procedure is usually no more uncomfortable than a blood test. You can have a local anaesthetic injection before the needle aspiration.

Your doctor puts a thin needle into the lump. If this is near the surface of your body and easy to get to, your doctor probably just feels it to guide the needle in. If the lump is deeper or hard to feel, your doctor uses an ultrasound scan or CT scan to guide the needle into the right place.

Your doctor sucks out some fluid from the lump into a syringe. The fluid contains cells. A specialist (pathologist) then looks at the cells under a microscope.

What happens after

You can usually go home or back to work straight afterwards.

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks at a follow up appointment. 

Waiting for test results can be a very worrying time. You might have contact details for a specialist nurse who you can contact for information if you need to. It can help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

You can also contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 for information and support. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

Possible risks

A fine needle aspiration is a very safe procedure but your nurse will tell you who to contact if you have any problems after your test. 

Last reviewed: 
16 Oct 2019
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