Head and Neck Cancer


Head and neck cancers encompass several different diseases that can affect the mouth, nose, throat and other surrounding areas. Over 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with head and neck cancer each year, as these diseases account for 3 to 5% of all cancers. Many cases of head and neck cancer can be prevented through life changes.

Several different types of cancer can affect the areas of the head and neck. Most begin in the lining of moist, mucosal surfaces such as the mouth, nose and throat. The cells in the lining are known as squamous cells, and may therefore be affected by squamous cell carcinomas. The different types of cancer associated with the head and neck include:

  • Oral cavity
  • Salivary glands
  • Nasal cavity
  • Pharynx
  • Larynx
  • Lymph nodes

Like other types of cancer, these diseases can spread to other areas of the body and lead to serious complications. Prompt, thorough treatment is essential in restoring the health and overall well-being of patients with head and neck cancer.

What are causes of head & neck cancer?

Head and neck cancers are most often caused by tobacco and alcohol use, especially cancer of the oral cavity and larynx (voice box). Other factors that may lead to cancer include sun exposure, HPV (human papilloma virus) and radiation exposure. Tobacco use is linked to 85% of head and neck cancers.

Many of these factors can be reduced or eliminated through simple lifestyle changes. Quitting smoking and avoiding alcohol can reduce your risk of developing head and neck cancer or slow the disease from progressing further. Patients who are at an increased risk for developing head and neck cancer should be screened regularly to detect any problems as quickly as possible. Early detection can significantly improve the effectiveness of treatment.

What are symptoms of head & neck cancer?

Fortunately, many people with head and neck cancers experience symptoms right away that lead to an early diagnosis of the condition. Symptoms of head and neck cancers vary depending on the type of cancer, but may include:

  • Lump in the neck
  • Hoarseness or other change in the voice
  • Growth in the mouth
  • Blood in saliva
  • Earache
  • New or changed growths on skin
  • Difficulty swallowing

While these issues may be caused by many conditions, it is important for patients to seek prompt medical attention at the first sign of these symptoms.

How is head & neck cancer diagnosed?

If a patient is experiencing any of these symptoms, either Dr. Lieberman will perform a complete physical exam. Based on the observations, he might schedule an endoscopy procedure to examine the area in question and take a tissue sample to determine the exact nature of the problem. Often imaging studies are ordered to help pinpoint the diagnosis (e.g. X-ray, CT scan, MRI).

If cancer has been diagnosed, it is important to determine the stage of the disease and whether or not it has spread to other areas of the body. Staging usually involves imaging procedures and can help determine the best
treatment approach for each individual patient.

What is the treatment for head & neck cancer?

Treatment for these cancers depends on the type and location of the tumor, as well as the patient’s age and overall health. Treatment often includes surgery to remove the cancer, as well as chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

Surgery involves the removal of the cancerous tissue and some surrounding healthy tissue to ensure thorough eradication of the disease. Surgery may cause swelling and bruising and may affect the patient’s ability to chew, swallow or talk. Chemotherapy is often administered after surgery and uses medication to kill cancer cells over repeated treatment sessions. Similarly, radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells.

It is important to discuss treatment options with all of your physicians, as certain methods may have long-term effects on the way you look, talk, eat or breathe. Making healthy life changes, including avoiding smoking and alcohol use, will help prevent the disease from recurring, as well as reduce the risk for other diseases.

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