Breath Test to Diagnose Cancer

  • Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinomas (HNSCC) account for 6% of all cancer cases worldwide.
  • Early detection plays a key role in the improved treatment outcome of HNSCC.
  • A new study shows a breath test is a practical and accurate method for diagnosing early-stage HNSCC.

Cancers that arise in or around the nose, mouth, throat, larynx, and sinuses are termed under the umbrella of ‘head and neck cancers’. The most common subtype is squamous cell carcinoma.

A mass in the neck or cranial neuropathies are one of the most common symptoms for referral for an investigation of head and neck cancers. However, these symptoms are mostly associated with an advanced stage of HNSCC. Moreover, they carry a bad prognosis.

Therefore, researchers believe biomarker studies can improve current diagnostic methods of HNSCC.

Cancer Breath Test Checks for Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are released as a result of biochemical reactions occurring within cells of our bodies. VOCs are found in various body fluids including, exhaled breath.

However, conditions such as cancers can alter the behavior of cells and produce a different pattern of molecules.

Therefore, the aim of the study was to investigate whether a breath profile can help differentiate between patients with and without HNSCC.

Participants Asked to Breathe into a Sealed Bag

Only patients with a clinical suspicion of HNSCC were recruited for the study. All patients were from the Flinders Medical Centre and Royal Adelaide Hospital Head and Neck clinics.

Next, participants were divided into a control group and a cancer group. Cancer group contained those with a histological diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma. Whereas, those with a histologically benign biopsy result were placed in the control group.

Participants were told to refrain from brushing their teeth, smoking or using deodorants and perfumes on the morning of sample collection. This was to avoid contamination of the sample.

Breath samples were collected prior to any treatment or procedure. Samples were collected by taking a deep breath in through the nose, followed by a single, deep, continuous exhalation through the mouth into a sealed bag. 

Thus, resulting in a mixed alveolar gas sample. This included a mixture of alveolar air and respiratory dead space air.

The sample was analyzed for VOCs using mass spectroscopy.

Breath Test Found to Have 80% Sensitivity and 86% Specificity 

The findings of the study were published in the British Journal of Cancer. 

While researchers don’t think the breath test could replace diagnostic procedures such as endoscopies and biopsies, they can potentially serve as a way to risk-stratify patients and improve detection of HNSCC.


Dharmawardana, N., Goddard, T., Woods, C. et al. Development of a non-invasive exhaled breath test for the diagnosis of head and neck cancer. Br J Cancer (2020).


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