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Head and Neck Cancers: An Overview

Head and neck cancer is a category that includes oral cancer, throat cancer, cancers of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity, and cancers of the salivary glands. These types of cancer typically begin in the squamous cells that line the mucus membranes of the head and neck. Head and neck cancers comprise 3 percent of all cancers in the United States, and are nearly twice as common in men as in women.

What causes head and neck cancers?

The biggest risk factor for this type of cancer is alcohol and tobacco use, which cause about 75 percent of head and neck cancers. The risk is especially pronounced for people who use both alcohol and tobacco. Other risk factors include HPV infection, consumption of preserved or salted foods, poor oral hygiene, occupational exposure to wood dust, nickel dust, asbestos, or synthetic fibers, radiation exposure, Epstein-Barr infection, and being of Chinese descent.

What symptoms do head and neck cancers cause?

While symptoms vary depending on the specific type of cancer, those who have head or neck cancer may experience a non-healing lump or sore, chronic sore throat, or change in the tone or pitch of the voice. Oral cancer may cause white or red patches, jaw swelling, and bleeding or pain in the mouth. Pharynx cancer is associated with difficulty breathing or speaking, pain when swallowing, frequent headaches, ear pain or ringing, and difficulty hearing. Sinus and nasal cancer is characterized by blocked sinuses, chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment, nasal bleeding, swollen eyes, and frequent headaches.

How are head and neck cancers diagnosed?

If you are experiencing these symptoms, your doctor will perform a full medical history and physical exam, including diagnostic testing (imaging and biopsy if necessary). If cancer is detected, further exploration such as an examination under anesthesia, x-rays and other imaging procedures, and laboratory tests, will be conducted to determine whether and how far the cancer has spread.

How are head and neck cancers treated?

Though treatment varies by specific type of cancer, the person's age and general health, and whether it has spread, most cancers of this kind are treated with a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. People with HPV-associated cancer may respond well to less invasive treatment. Head and neck cancer treatment may cause side effects such as swelling and difficulty chewing, swallowing, and speaking for a period of time.