A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and devastating to experience. But it's easier to have hope when you understand just what you're facing. In fact, in the complex category of head and neck cancers those found in the mouth, nose, throat, glands, voice box, ear, thyroid and skin you have an excellent chance of healing, especially if caught early.
The good news is that in people with the most common type of head and neck cancer, there's an 85 percent cure rate.
Awareness can be empowering: We don't want you to live in fear of developing a condition, but rather be armed with knowledge that could help you detect or be prepared for any symptoms. Understanding the risk factors and common signs of these cancers could help you identify them early and ultimately make your recovery journey easier.
What increases head and neck cancer risk?
Each cancer case is unique and may have one or several contributing factors. But a few key causes have been identified:
- Tobacco and alcohol usage: According to the National Cancer Institute, at least 75% of all aerodigestive tract (the organs and tissues of the respiratory tract and upper digestive tract) cancer cases are caused by use of tobacco and alcohol, with the exception of cancer of the salivary glands.
- HPV: The human papillomavirus 16 is a rapidly increasing cause of oropharyngeal cancers.
- Oral hygiene: Bad oral health and missing teeth may increase the risk for oral cancer.
- Occupational exposure: Certain jobs in the metal, construction, ceramic, textile, logging or food industries may increase the risk for larynx cancer, while exposure to wood dust has been associated with an increased risk for nasopharyngeal cancer.
- Ancestry: South Asian ancestry in particular is associated with an increased risk for nasopharyngeal cancer.
- Radiation: Exposure poses a risk to develop certain types of head and neck cancer, especially thyroid cancer.
What are the symptoms?
Since there are many different head and neck cancers, the symptoms vary. The most common symptom is a sore in the mouth that doesn't heal, but others include:
- Red or white patches in the mouth
- An unexplained lump in the head or neck area (usually not painful)
- An unrelenting sore throat, hoarseness or a change in the voice
- Difficulty breathing, nasal obstruction or persistent congestion
- Frequent nosebleeds or unusual nasal discharge
- Pain or trouble swallowing
- Ear or jaw pain
- Saliva or phlegm with blood
There are, however, illnesses and conditions that may mimic the symptoms of head and neck cancers and cause concern. An infection, a sore throat, neck swelling or lumps in the neck are all common issues that can be present in a patient but not at all related to cancer.
One situation in which you should always see a physician? New guidelines say any lump that has been present for a week and a half to two weeks should be tested.
How are head and neck cancers diagnosed?
Because of availability, most people would see their primary care doctor or dentist first, depending on the area of pain or swelling. Then you may be referred to an otolaryngologist, a physician trained in the medical and surgical management and treatment of head and neck issues.
Here are a few common ways your doctor can begin to diagnose your condition:
- Exam: A physical is done and medical history is discussed.
- Biopsy: A small sample of tissue is taken for testing.
- Endoscopy: A flexible fiber-optic instrument can be inserted to view much of the internal head and neck right in the doctor's office.
- Ultrasound: An ultrasound image is produced without radiation to evaluate thyroid nodules or neck lymph nodes.
Everyone needs to have a medical history and a physical exam, and there are certain clues within the history and physical that doctors take note of. Certain risk factors stand out: smoking, history of prior cancers, radiation exposure, if a lump has been there for a length of time, its size, if its causing problems with nerve function, swallowing or breathing.
If a physician believes there should be more investigation, there are a few more steps that can be taken relatively easily right inside the office.
How do you heal these cancers?
Surgery is the primary treatment for most head and neck cancers. Radiation may be involved for more advanced cases, or if it's too risky to operate on the patient. In some cases, plastic surgery may be recommended to reconstruct the area and improve quality of life.
People can be afraid or in denial and don't want to go, but fortunately, if they come in early, the majority of them are curable.
For your best treatment options and chances of recovery, it's important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of these cancers. Rest assured that at AdventHealth, our cancer teams treat not just head and neck cancer, but your whole health with the expertise of a multidisciplinary team.
If you have questions about head and neck cancer symptoms present in you or a loved one, or would like more information, please visit our Cancer Care page here.