Diagnosing a Mouth or Throat Tumor

Doctor examining patient's mouth.You have a tumor in your mouth or throat. A tumor is a mass of abnormal cells. To learn more about your tumor, your doctor will evaluate you. This may include a health history, physical exam, and some tests. The results help your doctor and healthcare team plan the best treatment for you.

Your health history

Your doctor will take your health history. He or she will ask about your health problems, symptoms, and any treatments you’ve had. If needed, you may be referred to a specialist for further evaluation.

Your physical exam

The physical exam is done in a doctor’s office. The doctor will look inside your nose and mouth with a light. He or she will also feel your neck and maybe your mouth. The following may be done during the exam as well:

  • Indirect laryngoscopy. A hand-held mirror is held to the back of your throat. The doctor directs a light to the back of your throat to examine the larynx, vocal cords, the base of the tongue, and other tissues in your throat.

  • Panendoscopy. Different types of tubes (endoscopes) are put into your mouth or nose, and sometimes down into your throat.

If needed, you may be given local anesthesia (numbing medication) to keep you comfortable during these procedures.     

Imaging tests

You may have one or more imaging tests. These give your doctor more information about your tumor. You’ll be told how to prepare for these tests ahead of time. Some common imaging tests include:

  • An x-ray. This test uses high-energy beams to take a picture of tissues inside the body.

  • A CT (computed tomography) scan. This is a computer-enhanced x-ray.

  • An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. This test uses strong magnets and computers to form images.

  • A PET-CT scan. A positron emission tomography (PET) scan uses a small amount of radioactive substance to show metabolic activity that may indicate cancer. For a PET-CT scan, these two tests are done at the same time. This creates a more detailed image.

Direct pharyngoscopy and laryngoscopy

For a closer look at your throat, larynx, and other nearby tissues, direct pharyngoscopy and laryngoscopy may be done. During this procedure, a lighted tube called a laryngoscope is placed into your throat. Direct laryngoscopy may be done in the hospital or in the doctor’s office. The doctor may spray a numbing medicine in the back of the throat to help you through the exam. In some cases, you may be given general anesthesia. This medication helps you relax and sleep through the procedure.


If you have a biopsy, a small sample of your tumor will be removed. This sample is then sent to a lab and studied. This helps show whether or not the tumor is cancerous. A biopsy may be done in the doctor’s office or in the hospital. In some cases, a biopsy is done during direct laryngoscopy.

Fine-needle aspiration

During fine-needle aspiration (FNA), a very thin needle is inserted into the tumor to remove a tissue sample. This type of biopsy may be done in the doctor’s office.

Deciding on treatment

Treatment depends on the tumor’s size, type, and location, and whether it is cancerous. Treatment may include one or more of the following:

  • Surgery

  • Radiation therapy

  • Chemotherapy