Cancer of the head and neck is defined as malignant tumor growth in the mouth, throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, salivary glands, or lymph nodes. Most of these tumors originate in the squamous cells lining the moist tissues of the head and neck.
Head and Neck Cancers
Head and neck cancers are identified based on the part of the body where they begin. There are five major types. Oral cavity cancer affects the lips, tongue, gums, cheeks, and palate. Larynx cancer involves the vocal cords and epiglottis. Pharynx cancer includes the esophagus and trachea. Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer invades the hollow spaces around the nose. Salivary gland cancer affects the major glands in the mouth and jaw.
Other types of cancer involving the brain, eyes, esophagus, and thyroid are classified differently, and are not considered head and neck cancers.
Causes & Symptoms
Tobacco and alcohol use are the two leading risk factors for head and neck cancers. Studies show 85% of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco use alone; that number rises for people who use both tobacco and alcohol.
Other risk factors include human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, radiation to the head and neck, sun exposure, industrial toxins, wood dust, asbestos, Espstein-Barr virus, poor oral hygiene, and consumption of certain preserved or salted foods during childhood. Those of Asian ancestry (particularly Chinese) are also at greater risk for some types of head and neck cancers.
Common symptoms include a lump or sore that doesn’t heal, a sore throat that does not respond to treatment, difficulty swallowing, and a change in the voice (such as hoarseness). Other signs might include unusual swelling of the jaw and chin, blocked sinuses, chronic sinus infections, facial pain and numbness, ear pain, headaches, difficulty breathing or speaking.
Treatment for head and neck cancers depends on the location and stage of the cancer, and may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of the three. Side effects vary based on the treatment type. Follow-up care is crucial, as people who have had head and neck cancers have an increased risk of the cancer returning, or a second cancer developing. Regular medical checkups and dental exams are highly recommended. Patients who smoke or use chewing tobacco will be urged to quit.