Head and Neck Cancer

Facts About Head and Neck Cancer

This year, about 62,000 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx and thyroid.

  • More than 25 percent of oral cancers occur in people who do not smoke or have other risk factors.
  • Rates of head and neck cancer are nearly twice as high in men and are greatest in men over age 50.

Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancer

The use of tobacco and alcohol greatly increases your chances of developing head and neck cancer. Risk factors include:

  • Alcohol consumption.
  • Smoking or use of smokeless tobacco, such as chew or dip.
  • Exposure to wood or nickel dust or asbestos.
  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome (disorder from nutritional deficiencies).
  • Exposure to viruses, including the human papillomavirus (HPV) and Epstein-Barr.

Quitting Smoking

If you quit smoking, the health benefits begin immediately.

  • For patients with head and neck cancer, quitting smoking reduces the risks of infections and developing other cancers.
  • To learn how to quit, ask your doctor or visit www.smokefree.gov.

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer

Although there are sometimes no symptoms of head and neck cancer, common complaints include:

  • Lump or sore that does not heal.
  • Sore throat that does not go away.
  • Difficulty or pain with swallowing.
  • Change in your voice or hoarseness.
  • Blood in your saliva or from your nose.
  • Ear pain or loss of hearing.
  • Lump in the neck.
  • Nasal stuffiness that does not resolve.

Diagnosing Head and Neck Cancer

To look for cancer, your doctor will examine all the areas of your head and neck.

  • Your doctor will first feel for lumps on the neck, mouth and throat. He or she may also use a flexible endoscope, a thin, lighted tube that is passed through the nose, to obtain a more comprehensive assessment of the head and neck area.
  • X-ray, CT, MR and PET scans are often needed to show the location and extent of the cancer.
  • To confirm if you have cancer, some tissue will be removed and analyzed. This test is called a biopsy.

Types of Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancers arise from the cells that make up the face, mouth and throat. Because cancers in different locations behave differently, treatment depends on the cancer type and extent. Some common locations include:

  • Nasal cavity/paranasal sinuses.
  • Nasopharynx.
  • Oral cavity (lips, gums, floor of mouth, oral tongue, cheek mucosa, hard palate, retromolar trigone).
  • Oropharynx (base of tongue, tonsils, soft palate, oropharyngeal wall).
  • Larynx (vocal cords and supraglottic larynx).
  • Hypopharynx (pyriform sinuses, post-cricoid area, posterior pharyngeal wall).
  • Salivary glands (parotid, submandibular, sublingual and minor salivary glands).
  • Thyroid.

Treatment for Head and Neck Cancer

Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on several factors, including the type of cancer, the size and stage, its location, and your overall health.

  • Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the mainstays of treating head and neck cancer.
  • For many head and neck cancers, combining two or three types of treatments may be most effective. That’s why it is important to talk with several cancer specialists about your care, including a surgeon, a radiation oncologist and a medical oncologist.
  • An important concept in treating head and neck cancer is organ preservation. Rather than relying on major surgery, an organ preservation approach first uses radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. This allows for a less extensive surgery and may even allow some patients to avoid surgery altogether.

Mouth Care

It is important to take care of your mouth, teeth and gums during radiation.

  • Careful brushing of your teeth can help prevent tooth decay, gum disease, mouth sores and jaw infections.
  • Be sure to tell your dentist that you received radiation to the head and neck area.
  • Talk to your doctor or dentist about any problems you are having.