Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancers account for only a small number of cancer diagnoses each year but they can have a big impact, affecting the mouth, throat, sinuses, lips, nose and even the salivary glands.

According to the National Cancer Institute, these types of cancers are more than twice as likely to occur in men than women and are most often diagnosed in people over the age of 50.

Head & Neck Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of cancer in the head and neck vary depending on the impacted area and may include:

Mouth Cancer
  • White or red sores on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth that don’t heal
  • Swelling of the jaw
  • Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth
  • A mass or thickening in the mouth
  • Denture issues
Back of the mouth and throat
  • Trouble breathing or speaking
  • An unusual mass or thickening at the back of the neck or throat
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing food
  • A feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Throat pain that doesn’t go away
  • Ear pain
  • Hearing loss
  • A ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
Voice box (Larynx)
  • Painful swallowing
  • Ear pain
Sinuses/Naval cavity
  • Sinus congestion that doesn’t clear
  • Sinus infections that don’t go away with antibiotics
  • Bloody nose
  • Headaches
  • Pain and swelling around the eyes
  • Pain in the upper teeth
  • Problems with dentures

Head & Neck Cancer Risk Factors

While a large majority of head and neck cancer diagnoses are the result of poor lifestyle choices, there are many risk factors that can cause these diseases:

  • Lifestyle: People with a history of smoking or breathing in second-hand smoke, vaping, and excessive alcohol consumption are at the highest risk for these types of cancer. Prolonged sun exposure, poor nutrition and poor oral hygiene can also contribute to certain cancers of the head and neck.
  • Gender: Men are more prone to head and neck cancers, but women are susceptible as well.
  • Age: Most head and neck cancers are diagnosed in those over the age of 50.
  • Medical History: Head and neck cancers have been linked to Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), HPV, Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita. A previous head and neck cancer diagnosis as well as radiation therapy administered for treatment for a previously diagnosed condition can also impact the head and neck. Studies show that acid reflux also creates additional risk.

Head & Neck Diagnosis & Staging

Following an initial screening which may include taking family history, blood and urine tests and feeling for lumps and abnormalities, your primary care provider may refer you to an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor (ENT, Otolaryngologist) for further observation, tests and lab work. These steps will help determine if there is a diagnosis of cancer and how advanced it is (known as staging) which will ultimately be used in determining a treatment plan. These tests may include:

Endoscopy

During this procedure, the doctor will insert a thin, lighted tube called an endoscope through the nose, into the throat and down into esophagus to examine any issues in the head and neck. Patients may be sedated for this procedure. Depending on which part is being examined, this procedure may also be called a laryngoscopy, pharyngoscopy, nasopharyngoscopy or panendoscopy.

Biopsy

If, during the endoscopy, the doctor discovers suspected cancer, he or she will insert a thin needle directly into the tumor or lymph node to collect sample cells for testing in a lab. The biopsy is used not just to identify the existence of cancerous cells but can be used to determine whether a person has HPV which is linked to some head and neck cancers. It may also be used for additional testing to determine the best treatment options.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests use sound waves, x-rays, magnetic fields, or radioactive substances to create pictures of the inside of your body, including computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan, ultrasound, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. These tests are typically used to determine whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body.