Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck conditions include a wide range of malignant (cancerous) and benign diseases, including cancers of the larynx, pharynx or salivary glands, HPV-associated growths, advanced cancers of the skin in the head and neck region (melanoma, basal cell, and squamous cell carcinoma) or chronic salivary gland infections.

Overview and Causes
 squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue
Squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue
Head and neck cancer accounts for about four percent of cancers in the United States, with approximately 55,000 Americans getting a head and neck cancer diagnosis each year. Many of these cancers are curable if caught at an early stage.

The most common types of head and neck cancer include:

  • Mouth (Oral cancer, Jaw cancer, Palate cancer)
  • Back of the mouth or throat (Oropharyngeal cancer)
  • Nose (Nasal cavity cancer)
  • Sinuses (Paranasal sinus cancer)
  • Upper part of throat (Nasopharyngeal cancer) Voice box (Laryngeal cancer)
  • Lower part of the throat (Hypopharyngeal cancer)
  • Neck (Thyroid, parathyroid, lymph node cancer)
  • Eye (Orbital Cancer)
  • Skull base (Olfactory neuroblastoma)
  • Skin of the head and neck

Head and neck cancers are more than twice as common among men as they are among women. We also see them more often among people over 50 than in younger people.

Causes of Head and Neck Cancers

The two most common causes of head and neck cancers are alcohol and tobacco (including smokeless tobacco), especially cancers of the mouth, throat, and voice box, and men are more affected than women. A typical person at high risk for mouth cancer is male, over age 40 and uses tobacco and/or heavy alcohol.

Another common cause of head and neck cancer, particularly of the mouth and throat, stems from human papillomavirus (HPV) 16. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection and affects 79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s. HPV is spread by having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the virus. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems like genital warts and cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus or throat.

Other risk factors include:

  • Preserved or salted foods. Consumption of certain preserved or salted foods during childhood is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Oral health. Poor oral hygiene and missing teeth may be risk factors for cancers of the oral cavity.
  • Occupational exposure. Certain industrial exposures, including exposures to asbestos and synthetic fibers, have been associated with cancer of the larynx, but the increase in risk remains controversial. People working in certain jobs in the construction, metal, textile, ceramic, logging, and food industries may have an increased risk of cancer of the larynx. Industrial exposure to wood or nickel dust or formaldehyde is a risk factor for cancers of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity
  • Radiation exposure. Radiation to the head and neck, for noncancerous conditions or cancer, is a risk factor for cancer of the salivary glands.
  • Epstein-Barr virus infection. Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer and cancer of the salivary glands.

Symptoms and Treatment

The symptoms of head and neck cancers may include:

  • A lump or a sore that does not heal
  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness or a change in the voice
  • A white or red patch on the gums, the tongue, or the lining of the mouth
  • A swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth
  • Trouble breathing or speaking
  • Pain when swallowing or pain in the neck or the throat that does not go away
  • Frequent headaches, pain, or ringing in the ears or trouble hearing
  • Sinuses that are blocked and do not clear or chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics
  • Nose bleeds
  • Frequent headaches
  • Pain in the upper teeth or problems with dentures
  • Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone
  • Numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face, or recurrent pain in the face, chin, or neck

Your treatment depends on a number of factors, including the exact location of the cancer, the stage of the cancer and your age and general health. Treatment for head and neck cancer can include:

  • Surgery: to remove tumors
  • Radiation therapy: using high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy: using drugs to target cancer cells
  • Combination of these treatments

Head and Neck Cancer Program

Our nationally recognized and compassionate head and neck cancer experts provide state-of-the-art diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation and follow-up care. Sparing healthy tissue whenever possible and reducing side effects, our treatments' goals are to get you back to normal activities as soon as possible. 

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Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery

We provide a range of comprehensive services, including state-of-the-art evaluation, advanced, multidisciplinary treatment, and follow-up care for patients with ear, nose, throat disorders; voice and swallowing disorders; and cancers and non-malignant conditions of the head and neck.

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