Health Care

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 medical oncologist and hematologist, M. Jameel Kyasa, MD, to learn more about both the prevention and symptoms of this potentially deadly disease.

What are Head and Neck Cancers?

According to Dr. Kyasa, “Head and neck cancers are a group of malignancies that affect different organs in the head and neck anatomic region. In cancer medicine, head and neck cancer usually refers to a specific type of carcinoma, usually squamous cell carcinoma, affecting different organs in the head and neck region.”

Some common examples would be cancers of the mouth and throat. 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.

“Maintaining healthy nutrition habits such as eating a variety of fruits and vegetables every day, choosing healthy sources of fat like olive oil and avocados, avoiding processed food, and relying more on whole grain breads and pastas may also reduce the risk of head and neck cancer,” explains Dr. Kyasa.

Who’s at Risk of Head and Neck Cancers?

While smoking and drinking can increase the risk of certain head and neck cancers, 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

When you have questions or concerns, it’s important to know who to contact. “Talk to your primary care physician and/or dentist,” says Dr. Kyasa. “A referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist may be required depending on symptoms and exam findings.”

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.

Treating Head and Neck Cancers

According to Dr. Kyasa, “Head and neck cancers are highly treatable and potentially curable malignancies particularly if diagnosed at an early stage.” Surgery is the primary treatment for most head and neck cancers, but Dr. Kyasa adds that, “treatment will depend on the size and location of the cancer and on the stage of the malignancy and extent of cancer spread.”

Other treatment modalities used often include surgical resection, radiation therapy, and some patients will require systemic therapy such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy.

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

To learn more about head and neck cancers, visit CancerCareKC.com.

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