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Head and Neck Cancers: Spotting the Signs Could Save Your Life

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In the United States, approximately 53,000 Americans are diagnosed with head and neck cancer every year, which accounts for about 3% of all cancer diagnoses nationwide. Almost 11,000 people die every year from these diseases that, when caught early enough, are easily treated and have a high survivability rate.

In light of April being Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke with board-certified Otolaryngologist-Head and Neck Surgeon Gregory Neel, MD, to learn more about both the prevention and symptoms of this potentially deadly disease.

What are Head and Neck Cancers?

Head and neck cancer is a blanket term that covers everything from cancers of the mouth, nose, throat, and salivary glands to the sinuses, neck masses, ear, thyroid and skin.

Most of these cancers, if caught early enough, have a great chance of survival. Diseases driven by the human papillomavirus (HPV) have a cure rate of about 85%, while smoking-related cancers have about a 50% survivability rate. Catching them early on increases the chance of survival tremendously.

“By paying attention to your body and any changes to it — and by making healthy lifestyle choices for your whole health — you may be able to prevent these diseases entirely, or catch them early enough for treatment,” explains Dr. Neel.

Who’s at Risk of Head and Neck Cancers?

“Smoking and drinking can increase your risk of certain head and neck cancers, but many are unrelated. Sun exposure increases risk of skin cancer. Family history can be an important risk factor as well. People who’ve received an organ transplant, those with immunodeficiency disorders and those on immunosuppressant medicines are also at a significantly higher risk of getting head and neck cancers.”

Common contributing factors which increase risk of head and neck cancer are:

  • Alcohol and tobacco use: At least 75% of all cancers affecting the upper digestive tract and the respiratory system are caused by alcohol and tobacco use
  • Ultraviolet light: UV light is a known, major contributing factor for skin cancer
  • HPV: Three subtypes of the HPV virus are responsible for 99% of cancers caused by it
  • Occupational exposure: Jobs that expose you to elements such as certain types of sawdust and other small particulate have been associated with higher rates of nasopharyngeal or sinonasal cancers
  • Oral hygiene: Poor oral health and may increase your risk of oral cancer
  • Radiation: Exposure to radiation can greatly increase your risk of developing cancer, especially thyroid cancer

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers

Because there are many different types of head and neck cancers, there are also many different symptoms associated with them. These are the most common symptoms to watch for:

  • Blood in saliva or phlegm
  • Difficulty breathing from nasal obstruction
  • Ear or jaw pain for more than three weeks
  • Frequent nosebleeds or unusual discharge from the nose
  • Mouth sore that doesn’t heal
  • Lumps on the head or neck
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing
  • Red or white patches in the mouth
  • Sore throat that doesn’t go away, hoarseness or a change in voice
  • Ulcers on the face or scalp

Diagnosing Head and Neck Cancers

“Generally, you’ll likely see your primary care physician or dentist first if you have any of these symptoms,” says Dr. Neel. “If they notice something requiring further investigation, they’ll refer you to a specialist like an otolaryngologist. We’re trained in the medical and surgical management and treatment of head and neck issues. Specifically, it is important to see a fellowship-trained Head and Neck Oncologic Surgeon, which is a subspecialty of Otolaryngology with expertise in all of the aforementioned areas, and more.”

From there, you’ll likely have a physical exam and you and your doctor will discuss your medical history. If the doctor sees something suspicious, they’ll likely perform a biopsy, where a sample of the problem area is removed and sent to the lab for testing.

“Sometimes, you may need an endoscopy, which is essentially a camera on a small flexible shaft that helps your doctor get a better look at what’s going on. We may use an ultrasound to look at your lymph nodes or thyroid,” says Dr. Neel

Treating Head and Neck Cancers

Surgery is the primary treatment for most head and neck cancers. Radiation or chemotherapy may be necessary for more advanced cases or if surgery is not the best option. In some cases, reconstruction may be recommended to maximize function afterwards.

"Catching it early is the best way to overcome these cancers," says Dr. Neel. "Get routine screenings and speak to your doctor if you notice any changes in your body."

To ensure the best possible outcomes, it's important to pay attention to the signs and symptoms of these cancers. At AdventHealth Cancer Institute, we don’t just focus on your head and neck cancer, we treat your whole health with the expertise of a multidisciplinary team of otolaryngologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, researchers and other specialists.

To learn more about head and neck cancers, visit

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