Head and neck cancers are cancers that develop in the larynx, throat, lips, tongue, nose, salivary glands, or sinus cavities. Most of the time, these cancers begin in the squamous cells on the surface of the affected part. These cancer cells can grow quickly and spread — or metastasize — to other tissues and body parts such as the bone or blood. These cancers are of particular concern because they can easily migrate to major organs including the brain and the lungs. The best prognosis comes from early identification and aggressive treatment.
Early Diagnosis Equates to Better Outcomes
Tobacco use is the biggest risk factor for developing head and neck cancers — also referred to as “throat cancer.” In the United States, nearly 200,000 people die annually due to smoking-relatednesses. The good news is, in recent years, the number of Americans dying from smoking-related disease has reduced due to anti-smoking campaigns warning of the risks and urging people to quit using smoking. The bad news is that some of these ex-smokers simply took up chewing tobacco or vaping, assuming it is a safe alternative. This is untrue – they are merely changing the site of the cancer risk from their lungs to their mouth. While lung cancer cases are down, cancers in the head and neck appear to be steadily increasing. Cancer of the head and neck is often successfully treated if diagnosed early. Fortunately, most head and neck cancers produce early symptoms. You should know the warning signs so you can alert your doctor. Remember – successful treatment of head and neck cancer depends on early detection. Knowing and recognizing the signs of head and neck cancer can save your life.
Head and Neck Cancer Indicators:
Lump in neck: Cancers that begin in the head or neck typically spread to lymph nodes in the neck before spreading elsewhere. A lump in the neck that lasts more than two weeks should be checked by your doctor. Of course, not all lumps are cancer, however, a lump (or lumps) in the neck can be the first sign of cancer of the mouth, throat, voicebox (larynx), thyroid gland, or of certain lymphomas or blood cancers. These lumps are usually painless and slowly grow.
Change of voice: Most cancers in the larynx cause a change in voice. Any hoarseness or voice change lasting more than two weeks should alert you to visit your physician. An otolaryngologist is a head and neck specialist who can examine your vocal cords. While most voice changes are not caused by cancer, you shouldn’t take chances. If your throat feels hoarse for more than two weeks, see your doctor.
A growth in the mouth: Most cancers of the mouth or tongue cause a sore or swelling that doesn’t go away. These sores (or ulcers) and spots of swelling are typically painless unless they become infected. Bleeding may occur, but often times that is not until late in the disease. You should be especially concerned if an ulcer is accompanied by lumps in the neck. Your dentist or doctor can determine if a biopsy is recommended and can refer you to a head and neck surgeon to perform this procedure.
Coughing up blood: Coughing up blood is not a normal symptom of anything good and should be evaluated by a doctor. While coughing up blood is often caused by something other than cancer, tumors in the nose, mouth, throat or lungs can cause bleeding. If blood appears in your saliva or phlegm for more than a few days, you should see your physician, and if there is active bleeding when you cough, see a doctor immediately.
Swallowing problems: Cancer of the throat or esophagus may make swallowing difficult. Food may “stick” at a certain point and then either go through to the stomach or come back up. If you have trouble almost every time you try to swallow something, you should be examined by a physician. Usually, a barium swallow test or an esophagoscopy will be performed to find the cause.
Changes in the skin: The most common head and neck cancer is skin cancer, usually basal cell carcinoma. Fortunately, this is rarely a major problem if treated early. Basal cell cancers appear most often on sun-exposed areas like the forehead, face, or ears. Basal cell cancer often begins as a small, pale patch that enlarges slowly, producing a central “dimple” and eventually an ulcer. Parts of the ulcer may heal, but the major portion remains ulcerated. Some basal cell cancers show color changes. Other kinds of cancer, including squamous cell cancer and malignant melanoma, also occur on the skin of the head and neck. Most squamous cell cancers occur on the lower lip and ear. They may look like basal cell cancers and, if caught early and properly treated, can be cured. If there is a sore on the lip, lower face, or ear that does not heal, consult a physician. Malignant melanoma typically produces dense blue-black discoloration of the skin. However, any mole that changes size, color, or begins to bleed may be trouble. A black or blue-black spot on the face or neck, particularly if it changes size or shape, should be seen by a dermatologist or other physician.
Persistent Earache: Constant pain in or around the ear when you swallow can be a sign of infection or of a tumor growing in your throat. This is particularly serious if it is accompanied by difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, or a lump in the neck. These symptoms should be evaluated by an otolaryngologist.
Identification of Head and Neck Cancer
To accurately diagnose head and neck cancers, your primary care doctor will likely refer you to an ENT doctor or an otolaryngologist. Your specialist will then assess the areas of concern that may include:
- Complete physical exam
- Panendoscopy — a procedure that includes the use of a scope to assess internal structures
- CT Scan
- Barium swallow
- Chest x-ray
Identifying High Risk of Head and Neck Cancer
Use of tobacco (cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco or snuff) and alcoholic beverages are closely linked with cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box and tongue. To help reduce your chances of throat or neck cancer, you can eliminate these things, or at least reduce them. If you use tobacco and/or alcohol, it is extra important to be aware of the signs of cancer and be evaluated at the first sign of trouble.
Prolonged exposure to sunlight is also a major cause of skin cancer. To help prevent cancers, attempt to reduce direct sunlight exposure, and if that is not possible, protect your skin with sunscreen or clothing to cover.
Risk factors for developing cancer of the head and neck include:
- Alcohol use
- Tobacco use – especially smokeless tobacco
- Oral exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Consumption of preserved foods
- Poor oral hygiene
- Use of mouthwashes with a high alcohol content
- Metal industry
For evaluation of any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your local ENT specialist in Fort Collins at Alpine Ear, Nose and Throat today!
Treatment Options For Head and Neck Cancer
Depending on the type and severity of cancer, your medical team will discuss a variety of possible treatment options with you. Some cancers can be treated with the removal of the cancerous tissue or tumor removal, whereas more advanced cancer may involve radiation and chemotherapy.