Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer: Diagnosis

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2022

ON THIS PAGE: You will find a list of common tests, procedures, and scans that doctors use to find the cause of a medical problem. Use the menu to see other pages.

Doctors use many tests to find, or diagnose, cancer. They also do tests to learn if cancer has spread to another part of the body from where it started. If the cancer has spread, it is called metastasis. Doctors may also do tests to learn which treatments could work best.

For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only sure way for the doctor to know if an area of the body has cancer. In a biopsy, the doctor takes a small sample of tissue for testing in a laboratory. If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis.

How laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers are diagnosed

There are many tests used for diagnosing laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer. Not all tests described here will be used for every person. Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

  • The type of cancer suspected

  • Your signs and symptoms

  • Your age and general health

  • The results of earlier medical tests

The following tests may be used to diagnose laryngeal or hypopharyngeal cancer:

  • Physical examination/lab tests. The doctor will feel for any lumps in the neck, lip, gums, and cheeks. The doctor will inspect the nose, mouth, throat, and tongue for abnormalities and often use a mirror to get a clearer view of these structures. Although there is no specific blood test that detects laryngeal or hypopharyngeal cancer, several laboratory tests, including blood and urine tests, may be done to help determine the diagnosis and learn more about the disease.

  • Laryngoscopy. A laryngoscopycan be performed in 3 ways:

    • Indirect laryngoscopy. Before this procedure, the doctor often sprays the mouth and throat with a local anesthetic to numb the area and prevent gagging. The doctor then uses a small, long-handled mirror to see the vocal folds.

    • Fiber optic laryngoscopy. During this procedure, the doctor inserts a flexible, lighted tube through the person’s nose or mouth and down the throat to view the larynx and hypopharynx. The nose is often sprayed with a local anesthetic to make the procedure more comfortable.

    • Direct laryngoscopy. This procedure is done in an operating room, and the person receives a sedative or general anesthetic to block the awareness of pain. The doctor then views the larynx and hypopharynx using an instrument called a laryngoscope. A sample of tissue for a biopsy (see below) is often taken during a direct laryngoscopy. Frequently, the doctor will recommend a triple endoscopy, a procedure done under general anesthesia to examine the ear, nose, and throat area, as well as the trachea and the bronchus, which are located next to the lung and the esophagus.

  • Videostroboscopy. This fiber optic video technique is used so the doctor can better see the larynx. It is performed in the same way as an indirect laryngoscopy (see above). It is used to view the vocal folds and can detect motion abnormalities and other changes in vibration that are often important for finding a tumor. Videostroboscopy helps determine the location and size of a tumor, as well as how the tumor has affected the function of the larynx and hypopharynx. Videostroboscopy is useful because the results frequently allow the doctor to find potential changes in the larynx before they are visible to the eye alone.

  • 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 type of biopsy performed will depend on the location of the cancer. For instance, during a fine needle aspiration biopsy, cells are taken using a thin needle inserted directly into the tumor. A pathologist then analyzes the sample(s). A pathologist is a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease.

  • Biomarker testing of the tumor. Your doctor may recommend running laboratory tests on a tumor sample to identify specific genes, proteins, and other factors unique to the tumor. This may also be called molecular testing of the tumor. Results of these tests can help determine your treatment options.

The following imaging tests may be used to determine if and how much the cancer has spread:

  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. A CT scan takes pictures of the inside of the body using x-rays taken from different angles. A computer combines these pictures into a detailed, 3-dimensional image that shows any abnormalities or tumors. A CT scan can be used to measure the tumor’s size. Sometimes, a special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to provide better detail on the image. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill or liquid to swallow.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to produce detailed images of soft tissue, such as the tonsils and the base of the tongue. MRI can be used to measure the tumor’s size. A special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to create a clearer picture. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill or liquid to swallow.

  • Positron emission tomography (PET)-CT scan. A PET scan is usually combined with a CT scan. However, you may hear your doctor refer to this procedure just as a PET scan. A PET-CT scan creates pictures of organs and tissues in the body. A PET scan is a way to create pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. A small amount of a radioactive sugar substance is injected into the body. This sugar substance is taken up by cells that use the most energy. Because cancer tends to use energy actively, it absorbs more of the radioactive substance. However, the amount of radiation in the substance is too low to be harmful. A scanner then detects this substance to produce images of the inside of the body.

  • Bone scan. A bone scan uses a radioactive tracer to look at the inside of the bones. The amount of radiation in the tracer is too low to be harmful. The tracer is injected into a patient’s vein. It collects in areas of the bone and is detected by a special camera. Healthy bone appears gray to the camera, and areas of injury, such as those caused by cancer, appear dark. For people with head and neck cancer, a bone scan is recommended if there are signs that the cancer has spread to the bone.

  • Ultrasound. An ultrasound uses sound waves to create a picture of the internal organs. This test can detect the spread of cancer to the liver or the cervical lymph nodes in the neck.

  • X-ray/barium swallow/dental exams. An x-ray is a way to create a picture of the structures inside the body using a small amount of radiation. Sometimes, the patient will be asked to swallow barium, which coats the mouth and throat, to enhance the image on the x-ray. This is called a barium swallow. A barium swallow is used to identify abnormalities along the throat and esophagus. A special type of barium swallow, called a "modified barium swallow," may be needed to evaluate difficulties with swallowing and choking while eating.

    A dentist may take extensive x-rays of the teeth, mandible (jawbone), and maxilla (upper jaw), including a panoramic radiograph, which is a panoramic view of the mouth, often called a Panorex. If there are signs of cancer, the doctor may recommend a computed tomography scan (see above).

After diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review the results with you. If the diagnosis is cancer, these results also help the doctor describe the cancer. This is called staging.

The next section in this guide is Stages and Grades. It explains the system doctors use to describe the extent of the disease and how the cancer cells look under a microscope. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.