Head and neck cancers affect the mouth, nose, throat and surrounding areas. They can cause facial and neck disfigurement; impair speech and vision; and affect the sense of smell and the ability to swallow. Each year, more than 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with head and neck cancers, which account for 3 to 5 percent of all cancers. Highly treatable, many head and neck cancers can be prevented through lifestyle changes alone.

Types of Head and Neck Cancers

Cancers of the head and neck are usually categorized by the areas in which they originate. Areas that may be affected include:

  • Oral cavity
  • Salivary glands
  • Nasal cavity
  • Pharynx (including nasopharynx, oropharynx and hypopharynx)
  • Larynx
  • Lymph nodes

Most head and neck cancers begin in the linings of the moist, mucosal surfaces of the mouth, nose and throat. The cells in the linings are squamous cells, which are vulnerable to carcinomas. Like other types of cancers, head and neck cancers can spread to other areas of the body, leading to serious complications. Prompt, thorough treatment is essential to either eradicate the cancer or keep it in check.

Causes of Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancers, especially cancers of the oral cavity and larynx, are most often caused by tobacco and alcohol use. When tobacco and alcohol are used in combination, they are linked to 75 percent of head and neck cancers. The exception is salivary gland cancer, which is not linked to their use. Many risk factors can be reduced or eliminated through simple lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking and abstaining from alcohol. Other risk factors may include:

  • Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Childhood consumption of certain salted/preserved foods
  • Poor oral hygiene and/or missing teeth
  • Ingestion of paan (betel quid)
  • Drinking maté (tealike beverage)
  • Occupational exposure to harmful substances
  • Previous infection with Epstein-Barr virus
  • Asian ancestry (elevated risk of nasopharyngeal cancer)

Those at increased risk for developing head and neck cancers should be screened regularly. Early detection can significantly improve the effectiveness of treatment.

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers

Head-and-neck-cancer symptoms often manifest themselves early, and vary depending on the type of cancer. Symptoms may include:

  • Lump in the neck
  • Hoarseness or trouble speaking
  • Swelling and/or white/red patches on the gums, tongue or mouth
  • Blood in saliva
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Swelling under the chin and around the jawline
  • Earache
  • New or changed growths on skin

Although these symptoms can be caused by a wide range of nonserious conditions, medical attention should be sought as soon as they appear.

Diagnosis of Head and Neck Cancers

Patients experiencing head-and-neck-cancer symptoms will have their medical histories taken and be given complete physical examinations. Various diagnostic tests, including endoscopy, biopsy, and blood, urine and imaging tests, will be performed. A definitive diagnosis of cancer will be given only after a tissue sample has been biopsied.

If cancer is diagnosed, it is important to determine the stage (severity) of the disease, which includes whether or not it has spread to other areas of the body. To determine a cancer’s stage, imaging tests are usually performed. Until the stage has been determined, an effective treatment plan cannot be devised.

Treatment of Head and Neck Cancers

Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on the type and location of the tumor, as well as the patient’s age and overall health. Treatment often includes surgery to remove the cancer, as well as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Surgery involves the removal of the cancerous tissue and some surrounding healthy tissue to ensure thorough eradication of the disease. Surgery may cause swelling and bruising, and affect the patient’s ability to chew, swallow or talk.

Chemotherapy is often administered after surgery; it uses medication to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy, on the other hand, uses targeted high-energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells.

It is important to discuss treatment options with a doctor, because certain treatment methods may have long-term effects on the way the patient looks, talks, eats or breathes. Making healthy lifestyle changes will help prevent a head and neck cancer from recurring, as well as reduce the risk for other diseases.