Story by: Nick Picht; Reviewed by Mia Jusufbegovic, M.D. on May 2, 2023
Head and neck cancer symptoms, including persistent sore throats, hoarseness or changing of the voice, dull ear aches, and lumps on the neck, can vary depending on where the cancer forms.
Some head and neck cancers even can form without symptoms.
Mia Jusufbegovic, M.D., head and neck surgical oncologist with Norton Cancer Institute Head & Neck Tumor Program, encourages people to check for symptoms, and seek medical care if something doesn’t feel normal.
“We should have a low threshold for speaking up if we feel like something is not right,” Dr. Jusufbegovic said. “Head and neck cancers can really affect anybody. If you’re having a sore throat that won’t go away, or you notice a little bump on your neck, or you’re feeling hoarse, speak up for yourself.”
Cancers of the head and neck are rare and do not receive the attention other cancers do, but when they occur they often metastasize without notice.
If you think you have some of the signs or symptoms of head and neck cancer, talk to your primary care provider.
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According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, roughly 110,000 people are diagnosed with oral or head and neck cancer every year in the United States, accounting for 6% of all cancers in the U.S.
Two-thirds of the time, head and neck cancers will be found as late as Stage 3 and 4, meaning the cancer has spread at least to adjacent tissue and possibly to other organs. The goal has become finding and diagnosing the cancers early, since early detection is key to successful treatment.
Head and neck cancer typically refers to cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract, meaning the nose, mouth, throat, voice box, trachea and esophagus. However, head and neck cancer also can refer to cancer that forms in other parts of the head and neck, including the thyroid and salivary glands.
According to Dr. Jusufbegovic, these types of cancers often can be disruptive to daily life, since they can affect breathing, eating and swallowing.
“Head and neck cancer really affects the things that make us, us and define the things that we do every day and we take for granted every day,” she said. “It may get to the point where you can’t breathe on your own, or eating may be difficult. To tell someone, ‘your swallowing is not safe anymore, and eating poses a risk to you right now’ is difficult to tell people.”
Tobacco and alcohol use are the leading causes of mouth and voice box cancers. Smokers are 15 times more likely to develop head and neck cancer compared with nonsmokers, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. People who use both tobacco and alcohol regularly are at greater risk than people who use only one or the other.
Recently, another cause of head and neck cancer related to oral sex has revealed itself.
Annually in the U.S., 10,000 new cases of head and neck cancer can be attributed to a particular strain of HPV found more often in younger nonsmokers.
In 2018, HPV-related throat cancer moved ahead of cervical cancer as the most common HPV-related cancer in the country, according to the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance.
According to Dr. Jusufbegovic, receiving the HPV vaccine can help prevent these forms of cancers.
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