Head and Neck Cancers

Most head and neck cancers are preventable. They are highly curable if caught early. Recognizing the early symptoms and alerting your doctor of any concerning signs as soon as possible can save your life.

The symptoms of head and neck cancer include:

Neck mass- head and neck cancers typically spread to the lymph nodes in the neck before spreading to other parts of the body. If you have a lump in the neck that lasts more than two weeks, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible. There are other reasons to have a lump in the neck, such as an infection, however a physical examination should be performed to determine the cause and nature of the neck mass. 

Voice changes- Although most voice changes are not due to cancer, the cancers that form in the voice box often cause voice changes. If you have hoarseness or the quality of your voice changes for more than two weeks, contact your doctor for an appointment. An ENT specialist can perform a quick and painless procedure to directly visualize your voice box to determine the source of your vocal changes.

Growth in the mouth- Cancers of the mouth or tongue often occur as a painless ulcer or sore that does not go away. As it progresses it may bleed, or it may be accompanied by lumps in the neck. Any sore or swelling in the mouth that does not go away within two weeks should be evaluated by your doctor. Your doctor will decide if a biopsy is needed, which will determine the nature of the growth.

Trouble swallowing- One of the symptoms of cancer of the throat or esophagus can make it difficult to swallow. Food may feel like it gets stuck in the throat, come back up, or take a long time to go down.

Coughing up blood- There are a few reasons you can have blood in your saliva or phlegm. Growths in the nose, mouth, throat, or lungs can cause bleeding. If you are bringing up blood, you should be evaluated by your doctor.

Persistent ear pain- Ear pain is not always related to a problem within the ear itself and may be due to a problem with the jaw, teeth, throat, or other surrounding structures. Constant ear pain with swallowing can be a sign of an infection or tumor in the throat, and if accompanied by voice changes, trouble swallowing, or a lump in the neck, you should be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible.

Skin changes- Basal cell skin cancer is a very common type of skin cancer that frequently occurs on the head on sun exposed areas, such as the forehead, ears, nose, and face. It does not typically spread to other areas of the body, but it can cause local tissue destruction if left untreated. It usually starts off as a small pale or red patch that slowly gets larger. It can eventually look like an ulcer that doesn’t heal and may bleed. Other types of skin cancer, such as squamous cell or melanoma, also can occur on the head and neck. Squamous cell skin cancer may look like basal cell, or it can appear as a rough scaly patch. Squamous cell skin cancer often occurs on the ears and lips. Malignant melanoma is a dangerous type of skin cancer that usually has a dark discoloration, however any mole that changes color or size may be problematic. If a mole that is changing, bleeding, or nonhealing should be evaluated as soon as possible by your doctor.  

Most of the time, head and neck cancers are preventable and associated with specific risk factors. The most common cause of the mouth, throat, voice box, and tongue are tobacco use and alcohol consumption. In adults who do not use tobacco products or consume alcohol, head and neck cancers can occur due to an infection with human papilloma virus (HPV). The number on cause of skin cancers is prolonged exposure to sunlight.  

The symptoms listed above can occur without the presence of cancer and are often due to other conditions. However, an evaluation by a physician is needed to know for sure. If you have any of the warning signs of head and neck cancer, see your doctor for an examination immediately. Remember that head and neck cancer is often curable when caught early.

Listed below are some of the types of head and neck cancer:

Hypopharyngeal Cancer- This type of cancer occurs in the hypopharynx, which is located in the back of the throat, above and behind the voice box. These types of tumors can be challenging to diagnose and may not cause symptoms until they are advanced. Symptoms include hoarseness, throat pain, trouble swallowing, and ear pain. These tumors are diagnosed with a physical examination, biopsy, CT scan, and/or MRI scan. Treatment usually involves surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy.

Nasopharyngeal Cancer- This is a rare type of cancer occurs in the nasopharynx which is the space behind the nose above the back of the throat. These types of tumors can be challenging to diagnose and may not cause symptoms at all. The symptoms may be similar to common issues, such as a head cold. Other symptoms that may occur include persistent cold-like symptoms, the feeling of something stuck in the throat, hearing loss, nosebleeds, snoring, headaches, or bloody sputum. These tumors are diagnosed with a physical examination and biopsy. A CT or MRI scan is used to assess the extent of the tumor and other areas of involvement. Treatment usually involves surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy.

Laryngeal Cancer- This type of cancer occurs in the larynx, also known as the voice box. It is common in patients with a history of heavy tobacco and/or alcohol use. Symptoms may include hoarseness, trouble swallowing, ear pain, coughing or a lump in the neck. These tumors are diagnosed with a physical examination and biopsy. A CT or MRI scan is used to assess the extent of the tumor and lymph node involvement. Treatment is individualized and may involve surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy.

Oral Cancer- This type of cancer, also known as oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer, occurs anywhere in or around the mouth. The most common oral cancers usually occur on the tongue, lining of the lips, or floor of the mouth. It can look like red or white patches, or it can have the appearance of an ulcer. Sometimes these types of sores or patches are precancerous lesions. The most common types of precancerous lesions in the mouth are:

Leukoplakias- These look like thick white patches that are usually on the tongue, cheeks, or gums.

Erythroplakias- These look like red raised areas in the mouth.

Leukoplakias and erythroplakias are diagnosed with a biopsy.

The most common types of oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cells are thin, flat cells that line the lips and mouth. If the cancer spreads, it is most likely to go to the lymph nodes in the neck. Oral cancers usually occur in patients over the age of forty-five.

Risk factors for oral cancer include:

  • Tobacco use (smoking or using smokeless tobacco)
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Male gender
  • Marijuana use
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV)

Symptoms of oral cancers include:

  • A mouth sore that bleeds or does not heal
  • A white or red patch in your mouth or on your gums, tongue, or tonsils
  • A lump or thickening on your lips, gums, or cheek
  • Voice changes
  • Trouble swallowing
  • A sore throat or feeling of something stuck in your throat
  • Numbness or pain in your mouth
  • Dry mouth

If you have any of the symptoms above, contact your doctor or dentist for an evaluation. They will likely perform a physical exam to check for signs of oral cancer. If an abnormal lesion is found, other tests may be needed such a biopsy, x-ray, or MRI scan. If oral cancer is found, treatment will depend on the stage of the cancer and may involve surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy.

If you have any of the above symptoms, please contact our office and schedule an appointment with one of our otolaryngologists

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