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Oropharyngeal Cancer Diagnosis

Patient being examined by physician

Our Head and Neck Cancer specialists have expertise in diagnosing every type of throat (oropharyngeal) cancer. We offer the latest technological advancements to accurately diagnose squamous cell carcinoma, lymphoma and minor salivary gland cancers of the throat.

Evaluation for the different types of throat cancers will begin with a thorough head and neck examination. Your physician will inspect the areas of the throat and lymph nodes of the neck for any signs and symptoms you may be having. After the initial evaluation is performed, your doctor may run additional diagnostic tests.

Throat Cancer Diagnostic Tests and Tools

The following tests may be performed to diagnose squamous cell carcinoma, lymphoma or minor salivary gland cancers of the throat.


A nasopharyngolaryngoscopy is a procedure that involves placing a flexible fiberoptic camera through the nose to see the surface of the oropharynx and other structures of the throat, such as, the vocal cords, base of tongue (back of the tongue), the lower part of the tonsils and the lining of the throat. This procedure is not painful, and a local anesthesia is used to alleviate any possible discomfort.


If your doctor suspects oropharyngeal cancer, a biopsy will likely be performed. This can occur in the outpatient office setting or under general anesthesia in the operating room depending on the location of the cancer. However, in oropharyngeal cancer this almost always takes place in the operating room. This is called a direct laryngoscopy, which is a diagnostic surgical procedure that allows for visualization and biopsy of lesions of the oropharynx with specialized scopes. It is done through the mouth without incisions in the skin. Patients undergo this procedure while under anesthesia. Doctors are able to obtain the biopsy while simultaneously being able to take a closer look at the cancer in order to assess what the best possible treatment plan should be. In some cases, patients are seen may have already had one of these procedures by a surgeon elsewhere with the primary goal of making a diagnosis.  At Penn, we suggest repeating the endoscopy so we can evaluate the cancer for optimal treatment using the approaches developed here at the University of Pennsylvania.

CT Scan or MRI

A CT scan or MRI is performed to assess the size and invasiveness of the cancer at its primary site and its relationship to adjacent structures (i.e., bone, muscles, blood vessels) while also assessing the lymph nodes of the neck.

Blood tests

Some patients may require a blood test depending on whether or not they have other illnesses.

Pet Scan

A PET scan is a nuclear medicine imaging study that may be performed in some cases but not routinely.  If recommended your doctor will as always explain the reason for ordering this scan.