Head and Neck Cancer’s Risk Factors, Types and Treatments
What is head and neck cancer?
Head and neck cancer describes cancers that occur throughout the head or neck area, including the larynx (voice box), throat, mouth, salivary glands, lips, nasal cavity or sinuses.
Head and neck cancers typically begin in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the mouth, nose and throat. These squamous cell cancers are known as squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck. Head and neck cancers can also begin in the salivary glands, but salivary gland cancers are not very common.
Risk factors for head and neck cancer
Of the many risk factors for head and neck cancer, the two most prevalent are alcohol and tobacco use. These habits increase your chances of developing cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx. In fact, about 75 percent of head and neck cancers are caused by alcohol and tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes).
Other risk factors are:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections – Infections of the cancer-causing HPV type 16 is a risk factor for oropharyngeal cancers, which impact the tonsils or the base of the tongue.
- Eating preserved or salted foods – Consumption of certain types of preserved or salty foods, especially during childhood, is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer (a rare type of head and neck cancer that starts in the upper part of the throat, behind the nose).
- Ancestry – People with Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese ancestry, have an elevated risk for developing nasopharyngeal cancer.
- Epstein-Barr virus infection – This virus is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer and cancer of the salivary glands.
- Poor oral hygiene – Tooth decay and missing teeth may be minor risk factors for cancers of the oral cavity.
- Occupational exposure – Exposure to wood dust is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer, while exposures to asbestos and synthetic fibers have been linked to 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.
Detecting head and neck cancer
To diagnose cancers of the head and neck area, your doctor will begin by reviewing your medical history and performing a physical examination. If you have specific symptoms, certain exams and tests may be ordered immediately. This is usually followed by an analysis of a sample of tissue under a microscope to confirm or rule out a diagnosis of cancer.
If cancer is present, your doctor will determine the stage (extent) of the disease. This may involve an exam under anesthesia, X-rays or other imaging procedures such as computed tomography (CT), ultrasonography or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Knowing the stage of head and neck cancer helps your oncologist plan the most effective treatment.
What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?
The symptoms of head and neck cancers can feel common. That is to say, many are associated with other, less serious conditions. Be sure check with a doctor or dentist about any of the following signs:
- A lump or a sore that does not heal
- Chronic sore throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- A change or hoarseness in the voice
Other symptoms can signal more serious problems in the head and neck, including:
- Oral abnormalities – Be alert to white or red patches on the gums, the tongue, or the lining of the mouth; along with swelling in the jaw, unusual bleeding or mouth pain.
- Pharynx (throat) / larynx (voice box) problems – Consult your doctor if you’re having trouble breathing or speaking, pain when swallowing, persistent neck or throat pain, frequent headaches, pain or ringing in the ears, or trouble hearing.
- Sinus and nasal issues – Take note of blocked sinuses that don’t clear, chronic sinus infections that don’t respond to antibiotics, nosebleeds, frequent headaches, swelling or other trouble with the eyes.
- Salivary gland complications – Tell your doctor about swelling under the chin or around the jawbone, facial numbness or paralysis, and pain in the face, chin or neck that does not go away.
Head and neck cancer types
There are several kinds of head and neck cancers, which are categorized according to where they originate (develop). They are:
- Oral cancer – Affects the lips, the front of the tongue, the gums, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, the bottom of the mouth under the tongue, the hard palate (bony top of the mouth), and the small area of the gum behind the wisdom teeth.
- Pharyngeal cancer – Impacts the pharynx, a hollow tube about five inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. Areas affected by this type of cancer include the back of the mouth, the base of the tongue, and the side and back wall of the throat.
- Laryngeal cancer – Laryngeal cancer affects the larynx, commonly known as the voice box because it contains the vocal cords.
- Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity cancer – Attacks the paranasal sinuses (small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose); and the nasal cavity (the hollow space inside the nose).
- Salivary gland cancer – This type of cancer begins in the area near the jawbone and the floor of the mouth, where the salivary glands are located.
Treating head and neck cancer
Your treatment plan will depend on a number of individual factors, including the exact location of the tumor, the type and stage of the head and neck cancer, and your age and overall health. Your RCCA treatment plan may include the following therapies administered singularly or in combination:
Excellent care for head and neck cancer is close to home
At RCCA, we approach the complexities of head and neck cancers much like we do all cancers: With a commitment to your individual needs and convenience. To us, world-class cancer care, advanced treatments, pre- and post-treatment support and breakthrough clinical trials are only effective if the people who need them most can access them. So we built an extensive network across three states to give you convenient, local access to the dedicated care you need to win your fight.