Head and neck cancers, as you may have guessed, affect areas of the head and neck. These cancers aren't common (they account for about 3% of all malignant cancers in the United States). And, according to the National Cancer Institute, head and neck cancer diagnosis have been declining for decades. So have mortality rates.
Despite that good news, a small percentage of the population still develops head and neck cancers each year. Because early detection of most cancers increases survival rates, it's smart to educate yourself on the symptoms and risk factors. There's no better time to learn about head and neck cancer than April, which is oral cancer awareness month; 75% of head and neck cancers begin in the oral cavity.
Types of Head and Neck Cancer
The five most common types of head and neck cancer are as follows:
- Laryngeal cancer, which is cancer of the larynx, also known as the voice box. This cancer may affect the vocal cords or the areas around the vocal cords.
- Nasal and sinus cancer, which may affect the nasal cavity (the area air passes through after it's inhaled through the nostrils) or the sinuses (hollow cavities in the face).
- Oral cancer, which may affect the tongue, the bottom of the mouth, inner cheek lining, hard palate, gums, or area between the upper and lower gums.
- Oropharyngeal cancer, which is cancer developing in the middle part of the throat, including the tonsils, tongue base, soft palate, and pharyngeal wall.
- Thyroid cancer, which is cancer involving the thyroid gland (located in the lower neck below the larynx).
Head and Neck Cancer Risk Factors
If you use tobacco (smoke cigarettes, pipes or cigars; chew tobacco, or use snuff), you have a higher risk of developing head and neck cancer than someone who does not use tobacco. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, 85% of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use. Frequent, heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages is another risk factor (drinking alcohol and using tobacco together increases the risk even more.)
While tobacco and alcohol use are the greatest risk factors for head and neck cancer, the following factors also may elevate your risk:
- Presence of the human papillomavirus
- Exposure to Epstein-Barr virus
- Poor oral hygiene
- Occupational exposures (to such materials as wood dust, asbestos, and formaldehyde)
- Acid reflux
Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer
Many head and neck cancer symptoms are also symptoms of less serious illnesses. These include a lump, a sore or a sore throat that doesn't go away, a hoarse voice and trouble swallowing. Other symptoms are body-site specific and include:
- Facial swelling, numbness or pain
- Chronic sinus infections
- Unusual bleeding in the nose or mouth
- Frequent headaches
- Unexplained toothaches
- Changes in hearing, such as frequent ringing in the ears
- White or red spots on the gums
How Is Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosed?
Especially if your lifestyle makes you high risk for head and neck cancer, it's wise to receive regular oral cancer screenings from your doctor or dentist before you have any cancer symptoms.
If you develop symptoms that could indicate a head and neck cancer, your doctor may conduct one or more tests or procedures to confirm or rule out the diagnosis of head and neck cancers. Some of the most common diagnostic tools include:
- An extensive physical examination
- Blood and urine tests
- An endoscopy (a thin, flexible, illuminated tube called an endoscope is inserted through the nose and into the esophagus so the physician can view the inside of the head and neck)
- A biopsy (a small tissue sample is removed and examined microscopically to determine if cancer cells are present)
- CT scans (X-rays that are analyzed by a computer)
If you have questions about head and neck cancers or any cancer-related topic, we encourage you to reach out to our team of cancer specialists at Maryland Oncology.