Think Beyond Cancer
Ask Think Beyond Cancer

The earlier a cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better the chance of it being cured. Some types of cancer - such as those of the skin, breast, mouth, testicles, prostate, and rectum - may be detected by routine self-examination or other screening measures before the symptoms become serious. Most cases of cancer are detected and diagnosed much after a tumor can be felt or when other symptoms develop. In a few cases cancer is diagnosed incidentally as a result of evaluating or treating other medical conditions.

A thorough oral, head and neck cancer examination can easily be completed in less than 5 minutes. It primarily consists of inspection and palpation. It is important for clinicians to explain to the patient exactly what they are doing before doing it. Not only will this help put the patient at ease, but it also gives them the opportunity to educate patients about the signs and symptoms of oral, head and neck cancer and how to detect it at an early stage. Commonly, changes noticed in a person's face and body pertaining to weight loss, anorexia and/or fatigue may be the first sign of a malignancy. The initial physical evaluation of a patient actually begins as soon as the clinician meets the patient.

While taking the patient's history it is helpful to note any facial asymmetry, masses, skin lesions, facial paralysis, swelling or temporal wasting. Inspection of the lips, both moving and at rest can also be performed while first meeting the patient. Listening in an important part of the examination as the sound of one's voice and speech are important in consideration of the location of tumors since a "hot potato" voice may signal the presence of an oropharyngeal tumor whereas a raspy, hoarse voice could be the first sign of a laryngeal neoplasm. Throughout this oral, head and neck cancer examination, it is helpful to remember to look, listen and feel every site that is being examined.

Lab studies of blood, urine, and stool can detect abnormalities that may indicate cancer. Test results must be interpreted carefully because several factors can influence test outcomes, such as variations in your body or even what you eat. In addition, keep in mind that noncancerous conditions can sometimes cause abnormal test results. And, in other cases, cancer may be present even though the blood test results are normal. Your doctor usually uses your test results to determine whether your levels fall within a normal range or your doctor may compare your results with those from past tests.

When a tumor is suspected, imaging tests such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound, and fiberoptic scope examinations help doctors determine its location and size. MRI provides excellent resolution of the details of nervous system structures but shows no detail of bone structure and it is usually used to clear up issues which remain unclear after CT scan. Nuclear medicine scans, particularly bone scans are invaluable in assessing possible metastatic involvement and depending on your particular tumor may or may not be used. To confirm the cancer diagnosis, a biopsy is performed: A tissue sample is surgically removed from the suspected malignancy and studied under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

CT scans, MRIs, and nuclear medicine scans are diagnostic procedures and are not conclusive evidence of malignant cancer. Only a biopsy and a pathologists report can give you a definitive diagnosis of cancer. The type of surgery and/or biopsy will be dependent on the location of the possible type of cancer diagnosis you may be hearing.

In some cases, tumor marker levels are monitored over time. Your doctor may schedule follow-up testing in a few months. Tumor markers are most often helpful after your cancer diagnosis. Your doctor may use these tests to determine whether your cancer is responding to treatment or whether your cancer is growing.