Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosis: Terms You Need to Know

by Rachel Zohn Health Writer

It can be daunting to try to make sense of the medical terminology for head and neck cancer. Although you look at your face in the mirror every day, you probably wouldn't be able to name the organs and elements that make up your head and neck, let alone the tests and procedures used in diagnosing cancer in these areas. The following definitions will help you make better sense of the medical terms associated with head and neck cancers.

Doctor looking in woman's throat.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma: The Most Common Head and Neck Cancer

Squamous cell carcinoma begins in the thin, flat cells that make up the moist, mucosal lining inside your mouth, nose, and throat. Squamous cell cancer is often associated with a history of smoking, alcohol, or exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that is transmitted through sexual contact. Epstein-Barr virus is another virus that's associated with some head and neck cancers.

Breathing passageways in the head.

Voice Box, Nose, and Throat Cancers

There are five main types of head and neck cancer. These three occur in the voice box, nasal and sinus cavities, and the throat.

  • Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers involve the larynx, or voice box.
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers: Nasal cavity cancers involve the area inside and around the nose that connects to the throat. Paranasal sinus cancers involve the air-filled areas around the nasal cavity.
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer occurs in the nasopharynx, or the air passageway at the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
Salivary glands.

Mouth, Tongue, Tonsil, and Salivary Gland Cancers

  • Oral and oropharyngeal cancers: Oral cancers occur in the mouth and tongue. Oropharyngeal cancers occur in the oropharynx, which is the middle of the throat, from the tonsils to the top of the voice box.
  • Salivary gland cancer involves the glands that produce saliva to keep the mouth moist and help break down food.
Examining cells under a microscope.

The TNM Staging System

Head and neck cancer are staged using the TNM staging system. Tumor (T) refers to the size of the primary tumor. Node (N) describes the involvement of the lymph nodes near the primary tumor. Metastasis (M) is the spread of the cancer to other parts of the body.

Woman undergoing head and neck CT scan.

Diagnostic Terms: Prognosis, Benign, Malignant, NED

Prognosis is the likely outcome or chance for recovery. Benign means noncancerous, while malignant means cancerous, with a tendency to invade and destroy nearby tissue. NED means no evidence of disease.

Barium swallow images.

Test Terminology: Biopsies and Molecular Testing

A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue to be examined under a microscope. Molecular testing is used to identify specific genes, proteins and other factors of a tumor to determine treatment options.

A barium swallow is a test to evaluate problems swallowing. A patient ingests a liquid containing barium and a series of x-rays are taken.

Bone scan imaging machine.

Imaging Terminology: Panorex, PET, MRI

Panoramic radiograph (Panorex) is a rotating x-ray that takes an image of the upper and lower jawbones to detect cancer. A bone scan examines changes to bones by using nuclear scanning and a radioactive tracer, which is injected into your vein. A positron emission tomography scan (PET scan) focuses on organs in the body; a dye with radioactive tracers is injected into your vein to create images. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a magnet to create detailed pictures of areas inside the body.

Doctors looking at x-ray.

Which Doctor or Health Care Pro Does What?

A multidisciplinary team is the collaboration of doctors and clinicians from different specialties in caring for a patient. A medical oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer using drugs. A radiation oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer using radiation therapy. An otolaryngologist is a surgeon who specializes in the ear, nose and throat. An oral pathologist is a dental specialist with training in the management of mouth diseases. A prosthodontist makes prosthesis, or artificial dental or facial parts, to restore swallowing, speech and appearance.

Doctor looking at MRI scan images of the head.


No matter where you are in your journey with head and neck cancer, the medical terms can be confusing, but trust that you will get a better handle on this complicated language as you go along. As you learn more about the disease, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor to break things down so that you can understand them clearly. For more head and neck cancer definitions related to treatments and therapies, see Head and Neck Cancer Treatments: Terms You Need to Know.

Rachel Zohn
Meet Our Writer
Rachel Zohn

Rachel Zohn is a mom, a wife, and a freelance writer who is striving to find the best way to juggle it all and maintain a sense of humor. She is a former newspaper reporter with a deep interest in writing about all things related to health, wellness and the human body. She enjoys writing about various health topics, including skin conditions such as eczema, different types of cancer and seasonal allergies.