What you need to know about Head & Neck Cancer

Facts & Stats

Head and neck cancer is basically an umbrella term that is used for describing numerous types of malignant tumors that can affect the throat, nose, larynx, mouth and sinuses. Some of the common forms of head & neck cancer include Laryngeal cancer, hypopharyngeal cancer, Nasal cavity cancer, paranasal sinus cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, salivary gland cancer, oral cancer and oropharyngeal cancer. Cancers that impact the salivary glands are adenocarcinoma, mucoepidermoid carcinoma or adenoid cystic carcinoma. Typically majority of the cancers affecting the head and neck areas are the squamous cell carcinomas. Head and neck cancers are quite common and impact both men and women.

Symptoms

Here are the symptoms of head and neck cancer.

  • The most commonly occurring symptom is a swelling that doesn’t heal
  • Fatigue
  • Jaw pain
  • Double vision
  • Unfitting dentures
  • Loosening of teeth
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Change in voice, hoarseness
  • Blood in phlegm or the saliva
  • Infections and pain of the ears
  • Frequent nasal discharge or nose bleeds
  • White and/or red patches inside the mouth
  • Persistent nasal congestion or nasal obstruction
  • Foul mouth odor which is not due to improper hygiene
  • Difficulty or pain swallowing, chewing or moving the tongue or jaw
  • Weakness or numbness of a certain body part around head/neck region
  • Lump or mass around the neck or head area; they may or may not be painful

Stages

Head and neck cancer is staged as Stage 0, I, II, III and IV, with the Stage IV being the most malignant. Additionally, T (tumor), N (node) and M (metastasis) are also used for staging the nature of the condition so that a clear description can be achieved. During the initial stages of the cancer, the tumors are extremely benign and can be managed easily. As the condition progresses into advanced stages, there is a strong tendency for the cancer cells to spread to other organs of the body. Management of the cancer becomes more and more difficult with the higher stages.

Causes

Tobacco and alcohol are two of the most important factors that are responsible for head and neck cancers, particularly those that affect the oral cavity. Certain types of cancers have been closely associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) type 16. Along with these factors, doctors suggest that poor oral health and exposure to radiation can lead to some forms of head and neck cancer. People who are exposed to radiation have a high risk of developing head and neck cancers. Wood dust may lead to nasopharyngeal cancer. Men and women working in construction, textile, logging, ceramic, metal, and the food industries run high risk of larynx cancer. Epstein-Barr virus infection can increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer and salivary glands cancer.

Diagnosis

The following tests are carried out to diagnose head and neck cancers:

  • Physical examination
  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Biopsy
  • Endoscopy
  • Molecular testing of tumor
  • Panoramic radiograph
  • X-ray
  • Barium swallow
  • Ultrasound
  • CT Scans
  • MRI Scans
  • Bone scans
  • Positron emission tomography or PET scans

It is to be noted that all of these tests are not required for every kind of head and neck cancer. While some of them may become necessary for certain types of cancers, others can be deemed important elsewhere. The stages of the cancer will also determine the nature of the test.

Treatment

Many types of head and neck cancers can be treated accurately when they are diagnosed early. The doctor is going to consider the treatment plan based on how it is going to affect a person in daily life, i.e. how the patient looks, feels, eats, talks, and breathes. Surgery is the most common mode of treatment available for head and neck cancers. Laser technology, excision, reconstructive (plastic) surgery and neck dissection or lymph node dissection are the main forms of surgery for these cancers. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy are some of the other modes of treatment available to a patient.

Prevention

Lifestyle changes can work greatly when it comes to preventing head and neck cases. If you are into smoking or alcohol, it is important that you stop such habits immediately. You should also avoid chewing tobacco as this can lead to cancer. Make sure that you practice proper dental hygiene to ensure minimized risk of head and neck cancers. If you are having gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or laryngopharyngeal reflux disease (LPRD), consult your doctor immediately. Do not consume marijuana as this can increase the chances of cancer. If you want to spend time under the sun, make sure that you use a sunscreen lotion to protect your skin from cancer.