Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosis and Staging

Risk Factors

As previously mentioned, the three main causes and risks for developing head and neck cancer are tobacco and alcohol use and exposure to cancer-casing types of human papillomavirus (HPV). Other risk factors include:

  • Being older than 40
  • Being male
  • Being African American
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Exposure to environmental and occupational hazards such as asbestos, formaldehyde, wood dust, nickel dust and synthetic fibers
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • A weakened immune system
  • Family history


In cancer diagnosis, time is always critical. Any symptoms in the head and neck that do not subside within a few days should be evaluated by your doctor or dentist, who then may refer you to one of our specialists. Diagnosis may include imaging of the suspicious area, along with lymph nodes in the neck and your lungs. In some cases, a biopsy may be performed. This is when a small piece of tissue is removed by a surgeon and then examined under a microscope for cancer cells by a pathologist.


Staging, or determining the extent of the cancer, is based on whether the cancer is confined to the head and neck area or whether it has spread to other organs or the lymph nodes. Staging determines the size of the tumor and how deeply it has invaded surrounding tissue. It also is important for selecting appropriate treatment and providing information about life expectancy and outcomes.

It may take several days to receive the results. Once the process is complete, your doctor will discuss the results with you and recommend a personalized treatment plan.