The physician determines the stage of the cancer based on the tumor's size and location, the size and number of lymph nodes affected and how much it has spread to distant parts of the body. Stage I is the mildest form of the disease, while stage IV is the worst form. Staging is important because it helps doctors develop the best treatment plan.
A large lymph node in the neck may be either easily seen and felt or hard to discover. In diagnosing the disease, doctors have several options, including:
- Examining the ears, nose, pharynx, larynx, tonsils, base of the tongue and thyroid and salivary glands
- X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans of various areas of the head and neck
- Biopsy. The whole mass is usually removed, rather than taking only a small tissue sample. It is examined under the microscope to see if cancer is present.