What is Head and Neck Cancer?

As the name implies, head and neck cancer includes cancer of the:

  • Lip, tongue, salivary glands, gums and other oral cavity tissues such as the inner lining of the cheeks
  • Floor of the mouth
  • Tonsils
  • Throat or pharynx
  • Voice box or larynx
  • Lymph nodes in the neck
  • Nasal cavity
  • Sinuses
  • Ear

Oral cancer is the most common type of head and neck cancer. 

Because head and neck cancer involves the digestive and respiratory tracts, tumours – if left untreated – can interfere with eating, swallowing, and breathing, and can invade other parts of the body. In general, the larger a tumour becomes, the more life-threatening it is. Twelve thousand Americans die from head and neck cancer each year. Early detection and treatment are critical and can save lives. If you have any concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us for advice.

When detected early, oral cancer patients have an 80 to 90 percent survival rate. Unfortunately, 40% of those diagnosed with oral cancer will die within five years because the majority of these cases will be discovered as a late stage malignancy.

How common is Head and Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancer accounts for five to 10 percent of all cancers in the United States. In New Zealand, there are approximately 520 new cases of cancer of mucosal head and neck each year (Ministry of Health 2013). In addition, there are an estimated 200 cases of metastatic non-melanoma skin cancer of the head and neck registered annually, as well as a smaller number of salivary malignancies. Head and neck cancer is more common in people over age 50 and three times more common in men than in women. If detected early, head and neck cancer is often curable. In fact, it may be prevented through some basic lifestyle changes.

What causes Head and Neck Cancer?

Smoking and alcohol are the major risk factors for Head and Neck Cancer.
While incidence of head and neck cancer is greatest in those over 50, incidence in young adults is on the rise, most likely attributable to human papillomavirus (HPV) exposure. Viral aetiologies are also implicated in cancers more common in certain ethnic groups. Nasopharyngeal cancer is associated with the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) as well as genetic and environmental factors, and is the commonest cancer of any site in Southern China (Wei and Sham 2005). 
Other risk factors that contribute to head and neck cancer include poor oral hygiene, ill-fitting dentures, chronic iron deficiency, infections of the nose or nasal passages, and occupational hazards such as wood dust inhalation and nickel exposure. The head and neck is a common site for non-melanoma skin cancer due to ultraviolet (UV) skin exposure.

What should I look for?

If you notice any of the following head and neck cancer symptoms, it is important to notify your physician immediately. Early detection and treatment are paramount and key to your good health.

  • A sore that does not heal or a growth in the mouth or on the tongue that persists
  • Painless swelling in the neck or side of the face
  • Nasal problems, such as bloody discharge, obstruction, or chronic sinus trouble
  • Blood in saliva or phlegm for several days
  • Pain when swallowing food or liquids
  • Decreased hearing or persistent earache, particularly if accompanied by swallowing difficulties,
  • hoarseness or a lump in the neck
  • Hoarseness or other voice change lasting more than two weeks
  • Changes in skin due to a non-healing ulcer or sore

The most common form of oral cancer, tongue cancer, for example, begins as a small lump or thick white patch. Over time, this lump turns into an ulcer that has a firm, raised rim and a delicate centre that bleeds easily. If left untreated, the tumour can spread to the gums, lower jaw, lymph nodes, neck, and floor of the mouth, destroying healthy tissues in all affected areas

How is Head and Neck Cancer diagnosed?

Head and neck cancer is often difficult to diagnose early because many people only experience mild symptoms. That is why it is so important to see your physician and dentist regularly, especially if you are a smoker or drinker. 75% of all oral cancers can be seen or felt in a physical examination by your physician and cancerous lesions may also be detected by dentists. Cancer of the nasal passageways or middle ear may be more difficult to detect and usually diagnosed by a Specialist. 
In addition to a thorough physical examination, your physician also uses blood tests, imaging techniques such as x-rays and magnetic resonance (MRI), computer tomograms (CT), arteriograms, endoscopy and biopsy to make an accurate diagnosis and develop the most appropriate treatment plan.

How is Head and Neck Cancer treated?

Successful treatment for head and neck cancer often involves surgery (open, endoscopic and Transoral Robotic Surgery), radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or any combination of the three. In addition to tumour removal, other goals of successful treatment include restoration of swallowing, eating and speaking functions. Reconstructive surgery and speech therapy are sometimes required for cosmetic and functional reasons after surgical removal of head and neck tumours.

How can Head and Neck Cancer be treated?

There are two simple ways to prevent oral cancer and other types of head and neck cancer – quit using tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco or snuff) and reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption.
Cigarette smoking is considered the most important risk factor for head and neck cancer (Saman 2012). A significant dose–response relationship exists between alcohol consumption and risk of head and neck cancer (Agudo et al 2006). Users of both tobacco and alcohol have a 50-fold (or greater) increased risk of developing head and neck cancer.
Seventy-five percent of all cancerous mouth and throat tumours are related to tobacco and alcohol use. Heavy smokers (more than two packs a day) and heavy drinkers (more than four alcoholic drinks a day) have a seven-times greater chance of developing oral cancer than non-smokers and non-drinkers.
Using sunscreen and a hat to avoid significant UV exposure can prevent Head and Neck skin cancers. If you have any concerns regarding Head and Neck Cancer, please contact us to schedule an appointment.

We are only too pleased to discuss your concerns regarding Head and Neck Cancer.

The information provided above is intended as a guide only and is not a substitute for an appointment with us.