What Is Head & Neck Cancer?
Head and neck cancer affects the mouth, nose, sinus cavities, salivary glands, throat or lymph nodes. These diseases, characterized by abnormal and uncontrolled cell division, often begin in the lining of the mouth, throat or nose. There are five primary types of head and neck cancer, including laryngeal (the voice box), nasal cavity (behind the nose), nasopharyngeal (air passageway behind the nose), oral (tongue and mouth) and salivary gland.
Head and neck cancers can be treated successfully if diagnosed early, but a series of factors can contribute to their development. These factors include:
- Alcohol and tobacco use — Lifestyle factors are some of the highest contributing factors to the development of head and neck cancers. As much as 75 percent of head and neck cancers are linked to smokeless tobacco, regular tobacco use and alcohol consumption.
- Human papillomavirus — Human papillomavirus or HPV has been linked to head and neck cancers that affect the tongue, throat or tonsils.
- Oral health — Missing teeth and poor oral hygiene habits have been linked to a higher incidence of head and neck cancer.
Head and neck cancer symptoms can vary based on the location and severity of cancer. Symptoms can range from trouble speaking or swallowing to painful, nonhealing sores. Depending on the affected site, common symptoms may include:
- Mouth discoloration — Red or white patches may appear on the gums or in the mouth, and the jaw may swell.
- Pain — Swallowing is painful and ear pain may occur.
- Sinus issues — One may experience pain in the teeth, frequent headaches or chronic sinus infections that do not respond to antibiotics.
- Throat issues — Trouble breathing, painful swallowing, difficulty speaking and chronic neck pain may arise.
- Swelling — Chronic swelling of the jaw, neck or mouth may occur.
Treating head and neck cancers depends greatly on the location and severity of the cancer. Beyond these factors, a patient’s age and general state of health are also important factors to consider. Once diagnosed, physicians work with patients to determine specific treatment plans comprised of several treatment options, including:
- Chemotherapy — This treatment involves administration of cancer-fighting medications that target tumors throughout the body.
- Radiation therapy — This therapy specifically targets cancer cells and tumors with targeted radiation.
- Surgery — Often the first step in a cancer treatment plan, surgery is intended to physically remove as much of a tumor as possible to maximize the benefit of additional or supplementary treatments.
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