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Signs You Have Neck and Head Cancer, Physicians Say

Expert explains what to know about neck and head cancer. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

An average of 70,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with head and neck cancers, which include cancers of the mouth, throat and voice box, according to John Hopkins Medicine. Men are more likely to get head and neck cancer and risk factors include smoking, chewing tobacco and excessive drinking.There are several signs that indicate head and neck cancer and Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Dr. Geoffrey Young, Chief of Head & Neck Cancer Surgery at Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida who explained symptoms to watch out. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


​​Facts About Head and Neck Cancer

man with sore throat

Dr. Young shares, "Head and neck cancers, in general, make up about 4 percent of cancers that we see in the United States each year. Historically, most head and neck cancer cases have been linked to alcohol and tobacco use and to people aged 50 and older. Now, more cases are being diagnosed without these risk factors, and increasingly occurring in younger people. At Miami Cancer Institute, approximately 80% of oropharyngeal (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils) cancers we diagnose are caused by HPV. These cases have been increasing at epidemic levels over the past years and cause as many deaths each year as measles caused in the pre-vaccine era." 


HPV Vaccine

Close up doctor's hand injecting for vaccination in the shoulder woman patient

According to Dr. Young, "The good news is that the HPV vaccine is expected to prevent oropharyngeal cancers. This has not been officially proven yet as all the people that have been vaccinated would not be likely to develop cancers for 30 or 40 years. So, in theory, it may be decades before it is proven. However, we don't see as much of the HPV viruses that cause cancer circulating among the people who've gotten the vaccine and I strongly recommend the vaccine to anyone who is eligible (males and females between the ages of 9 to 45). I received my HPV vaccine at the age of 43 and recommend that everybody should have it. If you have something that can prevent a cancer with minimal threat to your health — why not do it? As far as other preventive measures, quit smoking now — and reduce alcohol consumption."


Survival Rate of Head and Neck Cancer

Radiologist looking at the MRI scan images.

"Certain types of head and neck cancer have terrible survival (anaplastic thyroid cancer) and certain types have great survival (HPV related oropharyngeal cancer)," says Dr. Young. "Survival rates truly vary depending on the type of head and neck cancer the patient has. If you are diagnosed with head or neck cancer, it's important to discuss this with your doctor as part of your multidisciplinary consultation. While there is no standard or routine screening test for head and neck cancers, it is important to see your primary care provider on an annual basis. Additionally, many dentists screen for oral cancer and this should be checked at least once a year, during a routine visit."


How Head and Neck Cancer is More Treatable Today

A woman with cancer is sitting in a wheelchair

Dr. Young shares, "There have been significant developments in surgery, radiation therapy and systemic therapy. These include trans oral robotic surgery, targeted proton radiation and immunotherapy. All are changing the face of head and neck cancer with new protocols and clinical trials coming out every day."


Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancer

Man Smoking On Bright Sunny Day Outdoor

"Although we see increased risk with alcohol, tobacco and HPV exposure, everyone is at risk for head and neck cancer," says Dr. Young. 

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How to Help Prevent Head and Neck Cancer

stop smoking

Dr. Young says, "The best way to prevent head and neck cancer is not using tobacco products, limiting alcohol consumption, limiting sun exposure and getting vaccinated for HPV."

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Treatment Options

Sick women suffering from sore throat

"The treatment of head and neck cancer is very complex and multidisciplinary consultation with head and neck surgery, medical oncology and radiation oncology is often necessary," Dr. Young states. 


Signs to Head and Neck Cancer to Watch Out For

Doctor Performing Physical Exam Palpation Of The Thyroid Gland

Dr. Young explains, "Head and Neck Cancer is the general term used when cancerous cells form inside many of the areas within the head and the neck, including the mouth, nose and throat. There are many different types of head and neck cancers, each with its own symptoms.

–Voice changes (including hoarseness), difficulty or pain when swallowing, mass or lump in the neck, chronic sore throat or cough, difficulty breathing and unexplained weight loss. 

–These are common symptoms of throat cancer. Throat cancer symptoms can vary and often seem similar to symptoms of other chronic diseases. It's important to see your physician if you have any of these symptoms, especially if any last longer than two weeks.

–Mass or lump inside the mouth or on the neck, difficulty swallowing, blood in saliva and pain in the ears.

–These can all be signs of oral cavity cancer. Oral cavity cancer, also known as mouth cancer, is a kind of head and neck cancer in which malignant (cancerous) cells form in the lips or mouth. Oral cavity cancer is the most common type of head and neck cancer, with more than 90 percent of oral cancers occurring in the cells that line the mouth, tongue and lips. Symptoms often can vary, so if you experience these symptoms, especially those that last longer than two weeks, it is important to see your doctor. Having these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have oral cavity cancer, but if you are diagnosed with the disease and it is detected early, it's often highly treatable. 

 –Consistent sinus pressure or blocked sinuses, frequent headaches in the sinus area, a lump inside the nose, ear pressure or pain, upper teeth pain

–These are all common symptoms of nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer. Similar to other symptoms of head and neck cancer, it is advised to see your doctor if any of these symptoms last longer than two weeks.

–Lump or swelling in the front of the neck, pain in the neck or ears, difficulty swallowing or breathing, change in voice tone or hoarseness, chronic cough

–These are all symptoms of thyroid tumors. Thyroid cancer is the most rapidly increasing cancer diagnosis in the United States, the fifth most common cancer in women and the most common cancer in women aged 20 to 34. It's important to note that thyroid tumors rarely cause symptoms in their early stages, so if you experience these symptoms, especially if they last longer than two weeks, you should see your doctor. In early stages, thyroid cancer responds well to treatment.

–Sore throat or cough that does not go away, trouble swallowing or pain when swallowing, ear aches, lump in the neck or throat, change or hoarseness in the voice, breathing difficulties, unexplained weight loss

–Laryngeal cancer (sometimes called voice box cancer or throat cancer) is highly treatable when diagnosed early. It is important to be screened for laryngeal cancer if you experience any of these symptoms for more than two weeks. While having these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have laryngeal cancer, it is often highly treatable if detected early.

–Lump or pain in the neck or throat

–These can be symptoms of unknown head and neck cancers, which occurs when cancerous squamous cells spread to the lymph nodes in the neck or around the collarbone. Squamous cells are found in many of the body's tissues, including the skin, respiratory tract and lining of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity and resemble fish scales. Cancer can develop in these cells and metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body through blood or the lymph system." 

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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