On the first visit to a doctor for symptoms that suggest laryngeal cancer, the doctor first takes a complete medical history, including family history of cancer and lifestyle information about smoking and alcohol use. The doctor also does a physical examination, paying special attention to the neck region for lumps, tenderness, or swelling.
The next step is examination by an otolaryngologist, or ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. This doctor also performs a physical examination, but in addition will also want to look inside the throat at the larynx. Initially, the doctor may spray a local anesthetic on the back of the throat to prevent gagging, then use a long-handled mirror to look at the larynx and vocal cords. This examination is done in the doctor's office. It may cause gagging but is usually painless.
A more extensive examination involves a laryngoscopy. In a laryngoscopy, a lighted fiberoptic tube called a laryngoscope that contains a tiny camera is inserted through the patient's nose and mouth and snaked down the throat so that the doctor can see the larynx and surrounding area. This procedure can be done with a sedative and local anesthetic in a doctor's office. More often, the procedure is done in an outpatient surgery clinic or hospital under general anesthesia. This allows the doctor to use tiny clips on the end of the laryngoscope to take biopsies (tissue samples) of any abnormal-looking areas.
Laryngoscopies are normally painless and take about one hour. Some people find their throat feels scratchy after the procedure. Since laryngoscopies are done under sedation, patients should not drive immediately after the procedure, and should have someone available to take them home. Laryngoscopy is a standard procedure that is covered by insurance.
The locations of the samples taken during the laryngoscopy are recorded, and the samples are then sent to the laboratory where they are examined under the microscope by a pathologist who specializes in diagnosing diseases through cell samples and laboratory tests. It may take several days to get the results. Based on the findings of the pathologist, cancer can be diagnosed and staged.
Once cancer is diagnosed, other tests will probably be done to help determine the exact size and location of the tumors. This information is helpful in determining which treatments are most appropriate. These tests may include:
Endoscopy. Similar to a laryngoscopy, this test is done when it appears that cancer may have spread to other areas, such as the esophagus or trachea.
Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. Using x-ray images taken from several angles and computer modeling, CT scans allow parts of the body to be seen as a cross section. This helps locate and size the tumors, and provides information on whether they can be surgically removed.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI uses magnets and radio waves to create more detailed cross-sectional scans than computed tomography. This detailed information is needed if surgery on the larynx area is planned.
Barium swallow. Barium is a substance that, unlike soft tissue, shows up on x rays. Swallowed barium coats the throat and allows x-ray pictures to be made of the tissues lining the throat.
Chest x ray. Done to determine if cancer has spread to the lungs. Since most people with laryngeal cancer are smokers, the risk of also having lung cancer or emphysema is high.
Fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy. If any lumps on the neck are found, a thin needle is inserted into the lump, and some cells are removed for analysis by the pathologist.
Additional blood and urine tests. These tests do not diagnose cancer, but help to determine the patient's general health and provide information to determine which cancer treatments are most appropriate.