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. it is critical that you share all important health information with your provider. If needed, you may be referred to a specialist for more 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 numbing medicine (local anesthesia) to keep you comfortable during these tests.     

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 get ready for these tests ahead of time. Some common imaging tests include:

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

  • CT scan. This uses a computer and X-rays to take detailed pictures of your body.

  • MRI scan. This test uses strong magnets and computers to take images.

  • PET-CT scan. A positron emission tomography (PET) scan uses a small amount of a radioactive substance to show areas that might be cancer. A PET-CT scan are two tests 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, your provider may do direct pharyngoscopy and laryngoscopy. During this test, the provider puts a lighted tube (laryngoscope) 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 test. In some cases, you may be given general anesthesia. This medicine helps you relax and sleep through the test.


A biopsy means the healthcare provider removes a small sample of your tumor. This sample is then sent to a lab and studied. This helps show whether the tumor is cancer. A biopsy may be done in the doctor’s office or in the hospital. In some cases, the provider does a biopsy during direct laryngoscopy.

Fine-needle aspiration

For fine-needle aspiration (FNA), the healthcare provider puts a very thin needle 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 where it is. Treatment also depends on whether the tumor is cancer. Treatment may include one or more of the following:

  • Surgery

  • Radiation therapy

  • Chemotherapy