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How is adenoid cystic carcinoma diagnosed?

If your doctor thinks that you may have ACC, they will take your medical history, perform a physical examination (including feeling for any lumps) and carry out certain tests depending on the location of the suspected tumour. If the results suggest that you may have ACC, your doctor will refer you to a specialist for more tests. These can include:

CT (computerised tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans – special machines are used to scan and create pictures of the inside of your body. Before the scan you may have an injection of dye (called contrast) into one of your veins, which makes the pictures clearer. During the scan, you will need to lie still on an examination table. For a CT scan the table moves in and out of the scanner which is large and round like a doughnut; the scan itself takes about 10 minutes. For an MRI scan the table slides into a large metal tube that is open at both ends; the scan takes a little longer, about 30–90 minutes to perform. Both scans are painless.

PET (positron emission tomography) scan – before the scan you will be injected with a small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) solution. Many cancer cells will show up brighter on the scan. You will be asked to sit quietly for 30–90 minutes to allow the glucose to move around your body, and the scan itself will take around 30 minutes to perform.

Ultrasound scan – soundwaves are used to create pictures of the inside of your body. For this scan, you will lie down and a gel will be spread over the affected part of your body. A small device called a transducer is moved over the area. It sends out soundwaves that echo when they hit something dense, like an organ or tumour. The images are then projected onto a computer screen. The ultrasound is painless and takes about 15 minutes.

Biopsy – removal of some tissue from the affected area for examination under a microscope. The biopsy may be done in different ways. In a core needle biopsy, a local anaesthetic is used to numb the area, then a thin needle is inserted into the tumour under ultrasound or CT guidance. A fine needle aspiration (FNA) may also be used, which collects cells using a smaller needle and usually doesn’t require an anaesthetic. A surgical biopsy is done under general anaesthesia. The surgeon will cut through the skin and take a tissue sample.

Finding a specialist

Visit The Australian and New Zealand Head and Neck Cancer Society for a directory of specialist teams in ACC care and treatment.

Rare Cancers Australia also have a directory of health professionals and cancer services across Australia.

The Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Research Foundation (ACCRF) have a global list of specialists in ACC treatment, including those in Australia.

Featured resources

Understanding Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma

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Understanding Rare and Less Common Cancers

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed February 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Dion Forstner, Radiation Oncologist, St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, NSW; Nick Kelly, Consumer; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA.