Head and Neck Cancer Overview
Most head and neck cancers begin in the mucosal membranes of the oral cavity, throat, sinus cavity, salivary glands, soft palate, tonsils and nearby lymph nodes. These surfaces are moist tissues that line cavities – such as the mouth, nose and ear – that are open to the environment. Normal mucosal cells look like fish scales under a microscope, so they are called squamous (Latin squama, scale) cells, and head and neck cancers are often called squamous cell carcinomas.
Cancers of this type have a high survival rate if the tumor is found when it is still very small – less than two millimeters in diameter. Most head and neck cancers are not discovered quite so early. The prognosis is less promising when the tumor is larger, and when it has spread to nearby lymph nodes. As with many cancers, early detection is important, and thus it is important to pay attention to sores in the mouth and such things as a persistent sore throat or pain in the sinus area around the nose and under the eye.
WellStar Health System provides superior care for head and neck cancers, offering a comprehensive spectrum of top-notch physicians, treatment options and diagnostic tools. In addition WellStar offers innovative advances in the fight against head and neck cancer, including:
- Advanced oncologists who specialize in head and neck cancers and who practice state-of-the-art care in a collegial atmosphere.
- The entire spectrum of diagnostic and interventional treatments – including ultrasounds and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
- Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT), a treatment that allows for the radiation to be tailored to the size and placement of the tumor, while sparing healthy tissue. This is especially critical in treat cancers of the head and neck because so many other tissues and organs are close by and could be affected by radiation.
- A Tumor Board, which is comprised of a multidisciplinary team that meets weekly to review complex cases
- Clinical trials - making novel therapies available to patients.
Tobacco use, including smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco such as chewing tobacco and snuff, is implicated in about 85% of head and neck cancers. Heavy alcohol use also increases a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer. Tobacco use and alcohol use together increase a person’s risk even more, as the use of both over a long period are believed to cause changes in the cells of tissue in the head and neck.
Head and neck cancers can originate in many of the areas of the head and neck, and a person’s cancer will be identified and treated based on the specific location. Some examples are cancers of the throat, tongue, larynx, and oral cancer. They can spread to the lymph nodes of the upper neck, where squamous cancer cells may be found even when there is no evidence of cancer elsewhere in the head or neck.
Symptoms of head and neck cancers will vary based upon what part of the head and neck they appear in. They include:
- Hoarseness that persists or worsens over several weeks
- Difficulty swallowing
- Sore throat that does not go away
- A lump that does not go away
- A white or red patch on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth
- Swelling of the jaw
- Bleeding or pain in the mouth
- Blocked sinuses that do not clear up with antibiotic treatment
- Frequent headaches of unknown origin
- Tooth pain or denture problems
- Ear pain
- Swelling near the jawbone or under the chin
- Numbness or paralysis of the face muscles
- Difficulty hearing, pain or ringing in the ears
- Trouble breathing or sleeping
Risk factors for head and neck cancer include:
- Smoking and other tobacco use
- Drinking alcohol
- Drinking mate, a South American tea-like beverage
- Being male
- Sun exposure
- Exposure to certain industrial agents, such as wood or nickel dust
- Poor oral hygiene
- HPV infection
- Consumption of certain preservatives or salted foods
- Radiation to the head or neck
- Epstein-Barr virus infection
- Asian, particularly Chinese, ancestry
- A rare disorder known as Plummer-Vinson syndrome,which causes difficulty swallowing