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Know the Signs of Head and Neck Cancers

Last updated: April 18, 2024

April marks Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. The observance offers an ideal time to become familiar with the symptoms and risk factors for this group of cancers.

“As a Head and Neck Cancer Center of Excellence, ThedaCare Cancer Care is proud to play a leading role in educating and caring for the community,” says Dr. Nathan Munson, a Radiation Oncologist with ThedaCare Cancer Care. “With the designation, the goal is to streamline, standardize, and expedite the diagnosis and treatment of head and neck cancer patients.”

The Head and Neck Cancer program is a multidisciplinary group that comprises medical oncology, radiation oncology, surgery, endocrinology, radiology, pathology, and ear, nose, and throat specialists. It also includes support services such as dietitians and speech pathologists, with specialists located throughout the region.  

Knowing the Facts

According to the American Association of Cancer Research, when combined, head and neck cancers account for 4% of cancer diagnoses each year.

Head and cancers can start in:

  • The sinuses
  • Inside and behind the nose
  • In the mouth, including the tongue, the gums, and roof of the mouth
  • In the back of the mouth and the throat (pharynx), which includes three sections called the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx
  • In the larynx (voice box)
  • On the lips, although cancer on the lips is a type of skin cancer
  • In the glands that make saliva for the mouth

About twice as many men as women get head and neck cancers. They are also more likely to be diagnosed in people who are over 50 years of age.

Cancers involving the junction of the mouth and the throat are one of the fastest-growing types of cancer, and they’re often linked to HPV (human papilloma virus), Dr. Munson says. Also called oropharyngeal cancer, cancers in this junction can be divided into two subgroups: HPV-associated cancers and non-HPV-associated cancers.

Tobacco and alcohol use increase the risk for non-HPV-associated cancers. Meanwhile, HPV is responsible for about 70% of head and neck cancers. Treatment differs depending on the type of cancer, Dr. Munson says.

Identifying the Symptoms 

“Head and neck cancer symptoms can be difficult to detect, as they often mirror other ailments,” Dr. Munson says. “People should monitor any symptoms of concern and seek medical care if they fail to resolve.”

Common symptoms of head and neck cancers can include:

  • A lingering sore throat: A sore throat occurring without a cold or one that doesn’t go away. 
  • Mouth pain: Mouth pain unrelated to oral hygiene such as bleeding gums; discolored patches on the tongue or jaw pain could be serious.
  • Trouble swallowing: Swallowing that’s painful or feels forced and is not the result of a viral infection. 
  • Difficulty speaking: Persistent pain and hoarseness.
  • Sinus problems: Pain or pressure that continues in the sinus cavity and is not due to illness or allergies.

Other general signs of concern include weight loss, fever, chronic fatigue, and physical abnormalities like lumps or lesions. 

Reducing the Risk

Alcohol and tobacco are major risk factors for head and neck cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco, are linked to head and neck cancer (except for salivary gland cancers).

ThedaCare offers resources for those who need help quitting smoking. People can begin the conversation with their primary care provider.

Drinking any type of alcohol also raises the risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, and voice box. Large published clinical studies have strongly demonstrated that no amount of alcohol is considered safe with regard to cancer risk. In addition, the American Cancer Society Guidelines for Diet and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention state that it’s best to not consume alcohol at all.

HPV vaccination plays a critical role in preventing HPV-related throats cancers. A primary care provider can offer recommendations on when to get vaccinated.

Other prevention steps include abstaining from indoor tanning, eating a healthy and balanced diet, and avoiding processed foods and refined sugars.

“With awareness can come early detection of head and neck cancers,” Dr. Munson says. “We encourage everyone to watch for the signs and to make positive lifestyle choices to reduce their risk.”

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