Imaging investigations (scans) help the cancer care team to understand more about your cancer. Scans are often used to help inform the most appropriate treatment for your head and neck cancer.

The information in this section may help answer some of your questions about scans and investigations you may need; it is not intended to replace advice or discussion between you and your cancer care team.

Ultrasound (US) scan: A probe is placed on the skin surface that uses sound waves to look in detail at soft tissues, such as your neck.


Computed tomography (CT) scan: X-ray beams are used to create a detailed view of parts of the body. CT can look at large areas of the body very quickly and is very good for examining bone. Intravenous dye is often used to help enhance the quality of the information obtained from the CT scan.


Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan: A very strong magnetic is used to create a detailed view of parts of the body. MRI scans can look at large areas of the body but they are quite slow and noisy. MRI is very good for looking at many different types of tissue but it is important to lie very still during the scan. Intravenous dye is often used to help show blood vessels and cancers during an MRI scan. MRI can be dangerous in people with metal in their body because the magnet can make the metal move – let the radiographer know if you do have metal in your body but not all types of metal are affected.


Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan: A special glucose solution containing some radioactive material (known as a radiotracer) is injected into the body. The radiotracer accumulates in the cells that use more energy, including cancer cells, making these show up as ‘hot spots’ on the images. PET scans are very good at detecting cancers that grow quickly but not ones that grow slowly. PET scans are sometimes used as a follow-up investigation to find out if the treatment has worked, or to monitor if the cancer has returned. The scanning department will provide you with specific instructions on how to prepare for your scan.

Other diagnostic tests:

  • Biopsy is a procedure where a small piece of tissue is removed and tested under a microscope. Your doctor may recommend a biopsy to see if you have cancer and what type of cancer it is. Biopsies are usually done under a local anaesthetic (an injection to numb the area). It can take 7 to 14 days for your results to be processed.
  • Fine Needle Aspiration Cytology (FNA) is used when there is a lump (enlarged lymph node) in your neck that could have cancer cells in it. During the procedure, your doctor will take a small sample of cells from the lump using a needle. This is done by a radiologist or pathologist using an ultrasound to see that the needle is in the right spot. You may feel slight discomfort during this short test.
  • Sometimes a larger needle is used to get more tissue in the biopsy. This is called a core biopsy.It can provide more information than a needle biopsy but can be more uncomfortable. Your doctor will decide which type of biopsy is most appropriate for you.