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Symptoms & Diagnosis

At Wilmot Cancer Institute, we provide the full spectrum of cancer care, from initial diagnosis and treatment to recovery and rehabilitation. Doctors from various disciplines — otolaryngology, pathology, medical oncology, radiation oncology and more — come together to plan each patient’s care. They develop individualized treatment plans that aim not only to address the cancer but also minimize the side effects of treatment.  

The Comprehensive Head and Neck Cancers Clinic, based at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center, provides access to doctors who specialize just in head and neck cancers and who work closely with other highly trained experts to help address the impact that these cancers can have on patients.  

We work in multidisciplinary teams. Multidisciplinary means that our providers include experts with a variety of specialties: surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, nurse practitioners, social workers, clinical researchers, and others. They work together on your case to provide the most personalized care possible.

Head and neck cancer symptoms

Symptoms of head and neck cancers may include:

  • A lump or sore that does not heal
  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A change or horseness in your voice

Because these symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious conditions, it's important to check with a doctor or dentist. 

Symptoms that may affect specific areas of the head and neck include:

Oral cavity:white or red patch on the gums, the tongue, or the lining of the mouth; a swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable; and unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.

Pharynx: Trouble breathing or speaking; pain when swallowing; pain in the neck or the throat that does not go away; frequent headaches, pain, or ringing in the ears; or trouble hearing.

Larynx: Pain when swallowing or ear pain.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: Sinuses that are blocked and do not clear; chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics; bleeding through the nose; frequent headaches, swelling or other trouble with the eyes; pain in the upper teeth; or problems with dentures.

Salivary glands: Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone, numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face, or pain in the face, the chin, or the neck that does not go away.

How are head and neck cancers diagnosed? 

Getting an accurate diagnosis is essential to getting the best treatment. Diagnosing head and neck cancers can include:

Medical history and physical examination: This first step includes a complete medical history and assessment of risk factors and symptoms. The doctor will also examine the head, neck and mouth for any abnormalities.

Head and neck cancer cellsEndoscopy: In order to examine less visible areas like the larynx and pharynx, the doctor may use a tube-like instrument called an endoscope with a light and a lens. Depending on which area the doctor will examine, this procedure may also be called a laryngoscopy or pharyngoscopy. 

Imaging: Imaging tests are used to learn more about the location and extent of the tumor. Wilmot Cancer Institute offers state-of-the-art imaging technology such as PET scans, CT scans, MRI and ultrasound for diagnosing head and neck cancers at the University of Rochester Medical Center. 

Biopsy: A biopsy involves removing cells or tissue for further examination by a pathologist. Wilmot Cancer Institute offers ultrasound-guided biopsies and fine-needle aspiration biopsies, which use very thin needles. 

Pathology: At Wilmot, a pathologist who specializes in identifying head and neck cancers will examine the tissue from a biopsy under a microscope to determine whether cancer is present. Through additional testing, the pathologist can also determine specific features of the cancer, such as whether it is caused by HPV.

Because all of these diagnostic tools are available at the University of Rochester Medical Center, patients do not have to visit multiple locations for diagnosis and treatment.