Head and Neck Cancer

Most of us are aware of the deadly potential of certain cancers, but one cancer that causes serious problems often gets little attention. While uncommon, cancers of the head and neck can affect some of our most important functions—eating, speaking, and breathing.

Head CancerMost head and neck cancers begin in the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, and throat. They can also develop in the sinuses and nose, on the lips, in the salivary glands, and in the lymph nodes in the upper part of the neck.

These cancers account for about 3 percent of all cancers in the U.S. Health experts estimate that about 61,000 people in this country will develop head and neck cancer this year.

Currently, men are twice as likely as women to develop head and neck cancers. These cancers are most often linked to tobacco use—85 percent of patients have a history of smoking. People who drink alcohol and use tobacco face even higher risk.

Head and neck cancers frequently are diagnosed late, making them more difficult to treat and cure. Finding the disease early significantly improves the chances of beating it.

Symptoms include a lump or sore in the neck, throat, or mouth that doesn’t heal, persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing, and a change or hoarseness in the voice. Other signs include:

  • Chronic sinus infection or nosebleed
  • Unusual bleeding or red or white patches in the mouth
  • Swelling in the jaw or under the chin
  • Ear pain or ringing
  • Trouble breathing, speaking, or hearing

How doctors treat the disease depends on where the cancer started, how long it has been there, and whether it has spread. Surgery to remove the cancer and chemotherapy and radiation therapy to kill cancer cells may be used separately or in combination.

Assess your cancer risk. Learn more about genetic counseling and testing available at WCHN: