Cancers that are categorized as head and neck encompass the areas from the nasal passage and sinuses in the head, down to the opening of the esophagus at the base of the throat. Also known as squamous cell carcinomas, this type of cancer affects the mucous membranes lining the nose, mouth, and throat. Treatment for this form of cancer is managed by an otolaryngologist, or ear, nose and throat doctor (ENT).
Types of Head and Neck Cancers
- Oral Cavity - lips, tongue, gums, cheek lining, floor of the mouth, and the hard palette (roof) of the mouth
- Pharynx (throat) - nasopharynx (behind the nose), oropharynx (area made up of the soft palette, back third of the tongue, and the tonsils), hypopharynx (bottom or the pharynx, which connects to the esophagus)
- Larynx - (voice box, vocal cords)
- Sinuses and nasal cavity
- Salivary glands
A: Many of the symptoms for oral and throat cancers are similar to benign conditions. ENT doctors advise patients to pay attention to unexplained symptoms that persist beyond a few weeks, do not respond to treatment or clear up and then return frequently. The most common set of symptoms include:
- Sores in the mouth, gums or tongue that do not heal
- Chronic sore throat
- Hoarseness or changes in the voice
- Swelling and bleeding from the throat or nose
- Difficulty breathing, speaking or swallowing
- Chronic headaches or earaches
- Hearing impairment
- Chronic sinus infections that do not clear up with antibiotics
- Numbness and/or facial paralysis
A: While this type of cancer can technically affect anyone, it is more common in men over the age of 50.
Q: Are head and neck cancers preventable?
A: The most common cause of oral cancers is tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption. Abstaining from tobacco use (cigarettes and nicotine products) and avoiding or drinking alcohol in moderation is highly recommended. Good oral hygiene with daily flossing and brushing and regular dental check-ups, as well as a healthy diet can also lower the risk. Head and neck cancers can be treated successfully when caught early. Reporting suspicious symptoms to an ENT specialist as soon as possible is important for early detection.
Q: What are the treatment options for head and neck cancers?
A: Treatment varies from patient to patient depending on the type of cancer, location, stage at time of diagnosis and the patient's overall health. Most cancers are typically treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and/or targeted drug therapy.