Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Biopsy for throat cancer

Biopsy for throat cancer

A sample of throat tissues or cells is required for a biopsy, which must be conducted before treatment begins. The types of biopsies typically used for diagnosing head and neck cancers are:

  • Incisional biopsy: A small piece of tissue is cut from an abnormal-looking area. Because the larynx is deep inside the neck, removing samples involves a complex procedure. Biopsies in this region are usually performed in an operating room, with general anesthesia administered to prevent pain.
  • Fine needle aspiration (FNA): Here, a very thin needle attached to a syringe is used to extract (aspirate) cells from a tumor or lump.

What is a biopsy?

During a biopsy, a doctor removes a sample of tissue or fluid from the body. A pathologist inspects the cells under a microscope to see if they are cancerous. 

Some biopsies are performed endoscopically, others under image guidance, such as ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in the radiology suite. In some cases, biopsies are performed in the operating suite. This allows your doctor to collect cells from deeper inside the body. Depending on the type of biopsy performed, you will receive an anesthetic to reduce discomfort.

Compared with other diagnostic tests for cancer, biopsies often provide a more definitive diagnosis. A biopsy may help determine whether the cancer began at the site of the biopsy sample, or if it started somewhere else in the body.

Some sites that are commonly biopsied include the breast, skin, bone marrow, GI tract, lung, liver, bladder, colon and lymph nodes. Our doctors determine the most appropriate method of biopsy based on several factors, such as the size, shape, location, and characteristics of the abnormality.

Biopsy medical animation

Head and neck surgeon Dr. Bradley Mons answers three questions about throat cancer and human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is mostly associated with cervical cancer in women. However, recently HPV has shown to be a cause of throat cancer. The base of tongue, tonsils and adenoids are common locations for HPV-related cancers.

Are there screening tests to detect HPV infections in the throat, tongue, tonsils and adenoids?

There are no current routine laboratory tests to screen HPV in the head and neck. However, a thorough head and neck examination by a physician once a year can detect early changes. You also can ask your dentist for a screening exam during a routine visit.

What diagnostic tests are used to detect throat cancer and determine if it is HPV-related?

Patients may take a barium swallow test, which can show irregularities in the throat and detect early tumors. Most often, the inside of the throat will be examined using laryngoscopy or pharyngoscopy. Panendoscopy can also be used to examine the upper digestive system. CT scans and MRIs may be used for staging, but cannot actually detect the cancer.

Any non-healing wound or neck mass that persists longer than a week should be evaluated for biopsy, which will allow for earlier detection. Determining if throat cancer is associated with HPV requires a biopsy, which would be examined for the presence of HPV DNA. Check with your doctor because not all hospitals routinely screen for HPV.

How can people protect themselves from oral HPV infections and throat cancer?

The best protection against HPV is to abstain from sexual activity or practice safe sex, as HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It is still too early to determine if the HPV vaccine will reduce HPV-related cancer in the head and neck. Another way to reduce the risk of throat cancer is to refrain from tobacco and alcohol use.