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Doctor examining patient's neck

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer affects the mouth, throat, larynx, salivary glands, sinuses and nasal cavity. In the United States, head and neck cancer accounts for nearly four percent of all cancers in the United States, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Men develop head and neck cancer two times more often than women.

The survival rate for head and neck cancer diagnosed at stage one and stage two is more than 80 percent, which makes knowing the signs and symptoms important. Early diagnosis can be lifesaving.

“People view the head and neck region differently than other parts of the body,” said Arnbjorn Toset, MD, neck surgeon at Catholic Health Cancer Institute at Good Samaritan University Hospital. “When they feel a lump on their breast or see blood in their stool, they immediately associate it with cancer and call their physician. That’s not always the case with head and neck cancer.” 

Dr. Toset believes this is partially due to the symptoms associated with this type of cancer. 

“It may start as a lump on your neck, a sore in your mouth that doesn’t heal or sudden hoarseness in your voice,” he said. “These are inconveniences we tend to brush off or cope with, when in reality they are symptoms for the early stages of cancer.”


What are the types of head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancers can form in the:

  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses
  • Oral cavity (includes lip, tongue and gums)
  • Larynx (voice box)
  • Pharynx (throat)
  • Salivary gland


What are the symptoms of neck and head cancer?

Symptoms of head and neck cancer can depend on where a tumor is located. Symptoms may include:

  • A sore throat that is persistent and not caused by a cold
  • A lump or mass in the neck
  • A sore in the mouth, nose or skin that doesn’t heal
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Facial numbness or pain
  • Frequent headaches
  • Hoarseness
  • Nosebleeds or bloody saliva
  • Pain in the ear
  • Recurring sinus infections not responsive to medications
  • Swelling in the jaw, neck or face
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing


What are the common causes of head and neck cancer?

According to the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance (HNCA), nearly 75 percent of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use. Also, people who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.

HNCA also notes that infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV) is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancer.  

Other risk factors include:

  • Diet
  • Family history
  • Dental hygiene 


Can head and neck cancer be prevented?

Dr. Toset suggests the first step to head and neck cancer prevention starts at home.

“When caught at an early stage, these cancers are extremely treatable,” said Dr. Toset. “You just need to be diligent in your self-exams and know the signs and symptoms.” He also shared that vaccinations at early age may help prevent infections from causing cancers.  

Dr. Toset recommends four steps for a self-exam: 

  • Check the neck for lumps
  • Look at lips and cheeks
  • Bite gently and look at the gums
  • Open mouth and look at the tongue, throat and roof of the mouth

Contact your primary care physician (PCP) if there is discomfort in any of these areas or you notice something unusual. Your PCP can recommend you to specialists for further evaluation.


How is head and neck cancer diagnosed?

Diagnosis of head and neck tumors typically require collaboration between a PCP, dentist, oral surgeon and head and neck surgeon.

In addition to a full medical workup, your doctor will also perform a head and neck physical exam to check your face, larynx, mouth, neck, nose and thyroid for unusual lumps or masses.

Testing also helps your doctor determine the location of a tumor and if the tumor is cancerous or noncancerous. Testing may include:

  • Biopsy. A sample of tissue is removed and sent to a laboratory to check for cancer cells.
  • Core needle biopsy. Allows removal of a larger piece of tissue.
  • Fine needle aspiration. Performed on neck masses or lumps.
  • Radiological exams. Includes CT, MRI or PET scans to help locate the tumor.


How is head and neck cancer treated?

Once testing is completed, your care team will create a personalized treatment plan based on your type of cancer and stage.

Treatments may include:

  • Biological therapies
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery

Remember, head and neck cancers are highly treatable if detected early. Do not delay contacting your doctor if you notice anything unusual during a self-exam or are concerned about symptoms you are experiencing. The sooner you seek care, the sooner you can be diagnosed and treated if needed.

Call 866-MY-LI-DOC (866-695-4362) to find a Catholic Health physician near you.

View our cancer services.

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