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Doctors use many tests to diagnose cancer and find out if it has metastasized (spread). Some tests may also determine which treatments may be the most effective. For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only way to make a definitive diagnosis of cancer. If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis. Imaging tests may be used to find out whether the cancer has metastasized. Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:
- Age and medical condition
- Type of cancer suspected
- Severity of symptoms
- Previous test results
In addition to a physical examination, the following tests may be used to diagnose AdCC:
Biopsy. A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope. Other tests can suggest that cancer is present, but only a biopsy can make a definite diagnosis. The sample removed from a biopsy is analyzed by a pathologist (a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease). The pathology of the salivary gland may be complicated even among experienced pathologists so it is important that the tissue is examined by a head and neck pathologist who is experienced in diagnosing salivary disease.
The biopsy can be performed by using a fine needle biopsy or by surgical removal of part or all of the tumor. A fine needle biopsy is also called fine needle aspiration or FNA. This procedure uses a thin needle to remove fluid and cells. An AdCC tumor is characterized by a distinctive pattern in which bundles of epithelial cells surround and/or infiltrate ducts or glandular structures within the organ. Frequently, diagnosis of AdCC is made after the surgical removal of a tumor first thought to be benign.
Imaging tests. Imaging techniques, primarily magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scan, are useful to help doctors see the extent of the tumor before any surgery. A positron emission tomography (PET) scan may also be used to determine if the tumor has spread to other parts of the body.
- An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to produce detailed images of the body. A contrast medium (a special dye) may be injected into a patient’s vein to create a clearer picture. An MRI is very useful for identifying perineural spread (growth of the tumor along nerve branches) of AdCC.
- A CT scan creates a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body with an x-ray machine. A computer then combines these images into a detailed, cross-sectional view that shows any abnormalities or tumors. Sometimes, a contrast medium is injected into a patient’s vein to provide better detail.
- A PET scan is a way to create pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. A small amount of a radioactive substance is injected into a patient’s body. This substance is absorbed mainly by organs and tissues that use the most energy. Because cancer tends to use energy actively, it absorbs more of the radioactive substance. A scanner then detects this substance to produce images of the inside of the body.
Learn more about what to expect when having common tests, procedures, and scans.
After these diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review all of the results with you. If the diagnosis is cancer, these results also help the doctor describe the cancer; this is called staging. Learn more about the first steps to take after a diagnosis of cancer.