Diagnosis and Staging

The diagnosis and staging of head and neck cancer are the first steps in developing a personalized treatment plan.

At UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, our head and neck cancer experts bring together years of experience to give you the most accurate diagnosis and determine whether your cancer has spread.

We use state-of-the art imaging that’s reviewed by radiologists with special expertise in head and neck cancer. Our advanced equipment provides more details about your condition, which helps us create a better treatment plan

Evaluation and Imaging

To diagnose head and neck cancer, we’ll first ask for your medical history, perform a physical examination, and discuss any symptoms you may have. 

Next, imaging tests are usually done. If we ask you to repeat a test that you’ve already had somewhere else, it’s to lead us to a more precise diagnosis and better understanding of your situation. 

Our advanced imaging techniques include:

  • Computed tomography (CT scan)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Positron emission tomography (PET scan)
  • Ultrasound
  • Nuclear imaging

We also may examine less accessible areas of the head and neck using an endoscope, which is a thin, lighted tube that goes through the nose and into the throat.

In addition, we’ll often take biopsies so we can study the affected tissue under a microscope.


Once we have a head and neck cancer diagnosis, we’ll determine the stage (extent) of the cancer. This tells us how advanced the cancer is and is critical in helping us determine the best course of treatment.

The Tumor, Node, Metastasis (TNM) staging system is most widely used for head and neck cancers. This means we will assign a T, N, and M value to your tumor.

  • T refers to the size of the tumor.
  • N describes any involvement of the lymph nodes of the head and neck.
  • M indicates if the cancer has metastasized or spread to other areas of the body.

Request an Appointment

To schedule a visit with a head and neck cancer specialist at UT Southwestern’s facilities in Dallas or to learn more about our services, request an appointment or call 214-645-8300.