About head & neck cancer

What is head & neck cancer?

Oral, head, and neck cancer is a broad term that describes many different cancers that start in the head and neck. Learn about the different types and some common risk factors.

Most oral, head, and neck cancers begin in the cells that make up the moist tissues (mucosal surfaces) of the head and neck, including in the mouth, nose, and throat. Like other cancers, oral, head, and neck cancers occur when abnormal cells begin to grow and divide uncontrollably and form a mass, called a malignant tumor.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that 85 percent of oral, head, and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use. Men (age 50 or older) who use both tobacco and alcohol are at the highest risk.

Cancers of the brain, eye, thyroid, as well as the skin, bones, muscles and nerves of the head and neck are not included under the heading of "oral, head and neck" cancer.

Doctors identify oral, head, and neck cancers by the area in which the cancer begins:

Lip and oral cavity cancer occurs on the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the lining of the cheeks and lips, the floor of the mouth under the tongue, the palate, and the area behind the wisdom teeth.

Risk factors: Exposure of the lips to sun and, possibly, infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Salivary gland cancer occurs in the glands that produce saliva, located in front of and just below each ear (parotid glands), under the tongue in the floor of the mouth (sublingual glands), and below the jawbone (submandibular glands).

Risk factors: Radiation to the head and neck, either from diagnostic X-rays or from treatment for cancer or other conditions.

Paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer occurs in the small, air-filled pockets in the bones around the nose and in the nasal cavity, the passageway from the nose to the throat.

Risk factors: Exposure to some industrial materials, including dust from wood or nickel. Use of tobacco and alcohol may play a lesser role than in other oral, head, and neck cancers.

Nasopharyngeal, oropharyngeal, and hypopharyngeal cancers occur in the pharynx, an approximately five-inch-long hollow tube that leads from the nose to the esophagus and the trachea. The pharynx has three parts:

  • The nasopharynx is the upper part just behind the nose.
  • The oropharynx is the middle part that includes the base of the tongue, the soft palate, the sides and back of the throat, and the tonsils.
  • The hypopharynx is the lower part of the pharynx.

Risk factors:
Nasopharyngeal cancer: Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese. Infection with Epstein-Barr virus, exposure to wood dust, and consumption of some preservatives or salted foods.

Oropharyngeal cancer: Potential but not proven risk factors include poor oral hygiene, HPV infection, and use of mouthwashes with high alcohol content.

Hypopharyngeal cancer: Having a rare disorder called Plummer-Vinson Syndrome, which is also called Paterson-Kelly Syndrome.

Laryngeal cancer occurs in the larynx, also called the voice box. The larynx includes the vocal cords and the epiglottis, a piece of tissue that moves to cover the trachea (windpipe) during swallowing.

Risk factors: Exposure to airborne asbestos particles, especially in the workplace.

What are the symptoms for head & neck cancer?

The most common symptoms of head and neck cancer include a feeling of a lump, hoarseness of voice, dysphagia, etc. Let us look at them deeply.

  • Within the oral cavity - The appearance of a red or white color patch may be seen. One can also feel an overgrowth or Swelling of the jaw or below the tongue.
  • Trouble in the pharynx - The pharynx is the throat. Apart from a lump in the throat, the patient also complains of a ringing sensation in their ears. Or, can also have trouble hearing.
  • Complaint of the larynx - The larynx is the voice box. The patient often complains of a lump or heaviness around Adam’s apple. It is commonly associated with difficulty swallowing, heavy breathing, and a change in voice.
  • Sinuses - The most common site of cancer in the sinus is the maxillary and frontal sinus. Chronic sinuses or infected sinuses, common Headaches that last longer than usual, are seen. Most symptoms related to sinusitis can be noted here.
  • Salivary gland tumors - When it comes to head and neck cancers, salivary gland tumors are the most commonly seen, especially parotid gland tumor. Patients can complain of a lump, Xerostomia, excessive salivation, etc.

What are the treatments for head & neck cancer?

The treatment for head and neck cancer is determined based on the site of the tumor, the size of the tumor, the type of cancer, the grade of cancer, the age of the patient, and if any other comorbidities exist. Here are a few treatment plans -

  • Surgery - Surgical excision of a tumor is the best treatment plan if the cancer has not spread. Along with the tumor, the surgeon also removes little tissue surrounding cancer to prevent the chances of relapse.
  • Radiation therapy - This is a non-invasive method. Radiations are used to kill cancer cells. It is used in cases where the surgical approach cannot be used.
  • Drugs - Depending on the cancer, the choice of drug is made. In most cases, a combination of drugs is used, to ensure faster eradication of cancer.
  • Chemotherapy - Chemical agents are induced in the body. These agents are targeted to kill the cancer cells. However, since these chemicals are very strong, they often have more adverse effects, such as weight loss, hair loss, weakness, etc.
  • In more advanced stages of cancers, oncologists, often tend to use more than one treatment plan to ensure that cancer has been removed.

What are the risk factors for head & neck cancer?

Here are a few commonly known risk factors for head and neck cancer.

  • Chewing of tobacco - Tobacco contains Arecanut. This is the main culprit for most cancers related to the oral cavity. The constant secretion of this fluid, results in fibrosis of the muscle fibers, paving the way for cancer.
  • Human Papillomavirus - HPV has been known to cause cancers, below the tongue or in the tonsillar regions. Hence, if you have HPV or have a history of being infected by this virus, then you must look out for oropharyngeal cancers.
  • Alcohol abuse - Abusing alcohol, has been closely related to head and neck cancers. This is because alcohol reduces the ability of the body to fight back against the cancer genes as it reduces the overall immunity of the body.
  • Radiation exposure - Radiation causes a mutation in the genetic material of the cells. This makes the cells behave like cancer cells and divide uncontrollably.
  • Occupational hazards - People working in mines and places where they are frequently exposed to chemicals and toxins are more prone to developing head and neck cancers.

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