Blood tests cannot detect throat cancer. However, they can help indicate a person’s overall health. Doctors may use them to determine whether a person is a suitable candidate for certain types of cancer treatment.

Doctors may use a range of tests to diagnose throat cancer. Diagnosis usually begins with a complete head and neck examination. The exam may involve the doctor using an endoscope to look inside a person’s throat.

A doctor may then take a sample of any abnormal-looking areas to determine whether the tissue contains cancer cells.

This article outlines the various tests doctors may use to detect throat cancer and offers advice on seeking financial aid for throat cancer diagnosis and treatment.

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As the American Cancer Society explains, no blood test can detect mouth or throat cancers.

Why might a doctor order a blood test?

Doctors may order blood tests to assess a person’s overall health or rule out other conditions.

Blood tests can help diagnose low blood cell counts and a person’s overall nutrition. This can be helpful information to know before deciding on the best treatment for mouth and throat cancers.

The American Cancer Society outlines several tests doctors may order to help detect throat cancer. These are outlined below.

Complete head and neck exam

A specialist called an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor, or otolaryngologist, may perform a complete head and neck examination to check for any abnormalities in these areas.

The examination may include:

  • Lymph node palpation: The doctor feels and examines the lymph nodes in the neck to check for swelling.
  • Indirect pharyngoscopy and laryngoscopy: These in-office procedures involve using mirrors on long, thin handles to investigate the throat, the base of the tongue, and the upper part of the larynx, or voice box.
  • Direct pharyngoscopy and laryngoscopy: These in-office procedures involve using a flexible, fiber-optic scope called a pharyngoscope to look at structures of the head and throat that are more difficult to assess indirectly.


A panendoscopy is a procedure that involves a doctor passing different types of endoscopes through the nose or mouth to assess structures inside a person’s head, neck, and lungs. An endoscope is a thin, flexible tube with a camera attached.

It allows the doctor to check for abnormalities in the following areas:

  • oral cavity
  • oropharynx, which is the middle part of the throat that sits behind the mouth
  • esophagus, which is the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach
  • larynx, or voice box
  • trachea, or windpipe
  • bronchi, which are the two large airways inside the lungs

The main purpose of a panendoscopy is to:

  • look for tumors or other abnormalities
  • assess tumor size
  • determine whether tumors have spread
  • conduct tissue biopsies for further testing

Doctors typically do a panendoscopy in an operating room while the person is under general anesthesia.


A biopsy involves removing a sample of cells or a small piece of tissue for further analysis under a microscope. This procedure is the only way for doctors to confirm a diagnosis of cancer of the mouth or throat.

A doctor may perform an incisional biopsy, excisional biopsy, or fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy.

An incisional biopsy involves removing a small piece of the abnormal-looking tissue. It is the most common type of biopsy to check for changes in the mouth or throat. An excisional biopsy is when they remove the entire lesion.

Depending on the location of the tumor, doctors may perform a biopsy in office using local anesthesia or in an operating room using general anesthesia.

Fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy is a minimally invasive procedure that involves removing some cells from a tumor or lump using a very fine, hollow needle attached to a syringe.

A pathologist then assesses the cells under a microscope to look for abnormalities.

Although doctors do not use FNA biopsy to check for abnormalities of the mouth or throat, they may use them to determine:

  • the cause of a new lump in the neck
  • how far a cancer has spread
  • whether a cancer has returned following treatment

Exfoliative cytology

Exfoliate cytology is a procedure that involves taking a scraping of abnormal tissue, smearing the cells onto a glass slide, and staining the cells with dye. This helps doctors identify abnormal cells and decide whether to do a tissue biopsy.

Exfoliate cytology is a simple procedure that can help detect cancers in their earlier stages. However, it does not detect all cancers. It also does not always allow doctors to differentiate cancer cells from other types of abnormal, noncancerous cells. In such cases, doctors may request another form of biopsy.

HPV (p16) testing

HPV (p16) testing is a type of lab test that looks for human papillomavirus (HPV) in biopsy samples from the throat.

HPVs are a group of more than 150 viruses, some of which can increase the risk of mouth and throat cancers.

HPV (p16) testing is important for:

  • cancer staging, which is the process of determining how far a cancer has spread
  • helping doctors make decisions about treatment for oropharyngeal cancer
  • helping doctors make predictions about outcomes, since cancers associated with HPV tend to respond better to treatment

Imaging tests

Doctors do not use imaging tests to diagnose cancers of the mouth or throat. Instead, they may use them to help investigate a suspicious area that could be cancer.

Other reasons doctors may conduct imaging tests include:

  • to help with cancer staging
  • to determine the effectiveness of cancer treatments
  • to detect signs of cancer recurrence following treatment

Some imaging tests doctors may order include:

Many people may have concerns about how to cover the cost of a cancer diagnosis and any necessary treatment.

The National Cancer Institute provides tips on how to manage the costs of cancer care. These include:

  • Asking about expected medical costs from the outset: People can talk with their doctor about the anticipated costs of cancer care as soon as they receive a diagnosis. Cancer care costs vary greatly according to:
    • where the person lives
    • the hospital the person attends
    • the type of insurance the person has
    • the procedures and drugs the person will need
    • the cost of traveling to and from appointments
  • Learning about payment options for medical bills: People concerned about covering the costs of medical bills can talk with the billing office or a financial counselor at the hospital for advice on:
    • reduced rates
    • payment plans
    • patient assistance
    • help from charities
  • Talking with the healthcare team: Doctors who are aware of their patients’ financial concerns can make decisions about treatment options and prescriptions with these concerns in mind. They can also direct people to helpful resources.

Helpful organizations

Organizations that can help people cover some of the costs of cancer care include:

Blood tests cannot detect throat cancer. However, doctors may order blood tests to assess a person’s overall health and help inform decisions about treatment in people who already have a cancer diagnosis.

When diagnosing throat cancer, doctors typically start with a complete examination of the head and neck. They may then request additional tests, such as an endoscopy and biopsy. A biopsy is necessary to make a diagnosis of throat cancer.

Many people have concerns about covering the financial costs of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Several organizations and nonprofits can help people cover some of the costs of cancer care. People can also talk with their healthcare team for further information about their financial options.