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What Is Head and Neck Cancer?

The Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention of Head and Neck Cancer

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Updated June 27, 2014

Head and neck cancer is cancer that originates in the head or neck region, not including thyroid or skin cancers. Several types of cancer are considered head and neck cancer:
  • oral cancer
  • salivary gland cancer
  • laryngeal cancer
  • hypopharyngeal tumors
  • nasopharyngeal cancer
  • tumors of the oropharynx
  • tumors of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses

Causes and Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancer

Risk factors for head and neck cancer vary among the different types, but we know that tobacco use and alcohol consumption are the most significant risk. An estimated 85% of head and neck cancer diagnoses are related to alcohol and tobacco use.

Other risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

  • HPV infection
  • asbestos exposure
  • excessive, unprotected sun exposure
  • prior radiation therapy treatments to the head and neck
  • Espstein Barr virus infection
  • wood or nickel dust inhalation

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer

Symptoms of head and neck cancer vary, depending on the type of head and neck cancer. A broad spectrum of head and neck cancer symptoms may include:
  • chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment
  • difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • voice changes or hoarseness
  • general pain in the neck, throat, jaw, or chin that does not go away
  • ear pain, ringing in the ears, or trouble hearing
  • sore, blister, or other lesion in or on the mouth that does not heal
These are common symptoms of head and neck cancer, but more symptoms relate specifically to each type.

Diagnosing Head and Neck Cancer

How head and neck cancer is diagnosed depends on what type of cancer is suspected. Lab tests, imaging tests, biopsies, and endoscopies are all methods of diagnosing many types of cancer.

Once cancer is confirmed, the stage of the cancer is then determined and a treatment plan is developed.

Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on the type of cancer, stage, and other general health factors. Common methods of treating head and neck cancer include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.

Head and Neck Cancer Prevention

Since we know that tobacco and alcohol use are strongly linked to head and neck cancer, avoiding both is one of our best prevention defenses. Each is a risk factor for head neck cancer, but use of both greatly increases the risk.
Limiting your exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV) may also decrease the risk of head and neck cancer. Many studies suggest an association between some types of head and neck cancer with HPV infection. The virus is most commonly known for causing cervical cancer in women, but evidence is increasing that it may play a role in the development of other types of cancer.
Poor oral hygiene may also be related to head and neck cancer. Dentures that cause irritation due to improper fit and untreated dental caries may increase your risk of oral cancer.


Sources:

"What You Need to Know About Oral Cancer". Cancer Topics. National Cancer Society: What You Need to Know About Oral Cancer. 09 Sptember 2004. Accessed 18 July 2008.
http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/oral/page9

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