Head and neck cancers encompass several different diseases that can affect the mouth, nose, throat and other surrounding areas. Over 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with head and neck cancer each year, as these diseases account for 3 to 5 percent of all cancers. Many cases of head and neck cancer can be prevented through life changes.
Several different types of cancer can affect the areas of the head and neck. Most begin in the lining of moist, mucosal surfaces such as the mouth, nose and throat. The cells in the lining are known as squamous cells, and may therefore be affected by squamous cell carcinomas. The different types of cancer associated with the head and neck include:
- Oral cavity
- Salivary glands
- Nasal cavity
- Pharynx (including nasopharynx, oropharynx and hypopharynx)
- Lymph nodes
Like other types of cancer, these diseases can spread to other areas of the body and lead to serious complications. Prompt, thorough treatment is essential in restoring the health and overall well-being of patients with head and neck cancer.
Causes of Head and Neck Cancer
Head and neck cancers are most often caused by tobacco and alcohol use, especially cancer of the oral cavity and larynx. Other factors that may lead to cancer include sun exposure, HPV, and radiation exposure. Tobacco use is linked to 85 percent of head and neck cancers.
Many of these factors can be reduced or eliminated through simple life changes. Quitting smoking and avoiding alcohol can reduce your risk of developing head and neck cancer or slow the disease from progressing further. Patients who are at an increased risk for developing head and neck cancer should be screened regularly to detect any problems as quickly as possible. Early detection can significantly improve the effectiveness of treatment.
Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer
Fortunately, many people with head and neck cancers experience symptoms right away that lead to an early diagnosis of the condition. Symptoms of head and neck cancers vary depending on the type of cancer, but may include:
- Lump in the neck
- Hoarseness or other change in the voice
- Growth in the mouth
- Blood in saliva
- Difficulty swallowing
- New or changed growths on skin
While these symptoms may be caused by a wide range of conditions, it is important for patients to seek prompt medical attention at the first sign of symptoms.
Diagnosing Head and Neck Cancer
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, your doctor may perform an endoscopy, blood tests, imaging tests and a biopsy, along with a complete physical examination. In order to confirm a diagnosis of cancer, a tissue sample (biopsy) needs to be examined under a microscope.
Once cancer has been diagnosed, it is important to determine the stage of the disease and whether or not it has spread to other areas of the body. Staging usually involves imaging procedures and can help determine the best treatment approach for each individual patient.
Treatment for these cancers depends on the type and location of the tumor, as well as the patient's age and overall health. Treatment often includes surgery to remove the cancer, as well as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Surgery involves the removal of the cancerous tissue and some surrounding healthy tissue to ensure thorough eradication of the disease. Surgery may cause swelling and bruising, and may affect the patient’s ability to chew, swallow or talk. Chemotherapy is often administered after surgery and uses medication to kill cancer cells over repeated treatment sessions. Similarly, radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. Your doctor will develop a customized treatment plan for you.
It is important to discuss treatment options with your doctors, as certain methods may have long-term effects on the way you look, talk, eat or breathe. Making healthy life changes, including avoiding smoking and alcohol use, will help prevent the disease from recurring, as well as reduce the risk for other diseases.