What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancers are multiple kinds of cancers that develop in the throat, nose, mouth, sinuses, or larynx. These cancers have been linked to tobacco use, alcohol consumption, and the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Head and neck cancers include:

  • Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer: Laryngeal cancer starts in the larynx, which is also known as the voice box. Hypopharyngeal cancer starts in the lower throat.
  • Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer: Cancers in the oral cavity occur in the mouth and tongue. Oropharyngeal cancer starts in the middle part of the throat, behind the mouth.
  • Nasopharyngeal Cancer: Nasopharyngeal cancer starts in the upper part of the throat, behind the nose.
  • Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinuses Cancer: Nasal cavity cancer starts in the nasal cavity, the opening behind the nose. Paranasal sinus cancer starts in the sinuses, the air-filled spaces in the bones around the nose.
  • Salivary Gland Cancer: Salivary gland cancer starts in the glands that produce saliva, which are located inside and near the mouth.

What Causes Head and Neck Cancer?

“Sometimes, head and neck cancer can’t be prevented,” said Dr. Samith Kochuparambil at Minnesota Oncology. “But we know there are risk factors, and in many cases, we can take steps to reduce that risk.”

Alcohol and Tobacco Use

Two of the most important risk factors for head and neck cancers are alcohol and tobacco use. This includes exposure to secondhand smoke and use of smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco or “snuff”). These risk factors are linked to cancers that occur in the oral cavity, hypopharynx, and the voice box. People who use both tobacco and alcohol have a greater risk of developing head and neck cancers than those who drink alcohol or use tobacco alone. Reducing or eliminating consumption of alcohol and tobacco products, or limiting secondhand tobacco exposure, may reduce cancer risk.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV has been linked to oropharyngeal cancers, which are cancers found in the back of the throat, base of the tongue, and the tonsils. HPV may cause up to 70% of oropharyngeal cancer cases in the United States. Cancer may develop years after a person is initially infected with HPV. HPV has not been linked to other head and neck cancers.

The HPV vaccine was created to prevent cervical cancer and other reproductive system cancers; however, the vaccine does also protect against the types of HPV known to cause oropharyngeal cancers. HPV infection risk can also be lowered by consistent and correct usage of condoms and dental dams.

Other Factors

Head and neck cancers may also be caused by other factors like radiation exposure or Epstein-Barr virus infection. Genetics and ancestry may also play a role in whether you develop these cancers. If you have concerns about your risk of head and neck cancers, please speak with your physician.

Signs and Symptoms

Early signs of head and neck cancer can be very subtle. They can be confused with very common ailments such as upper respiratory infection or a cold. Persistent symptoms need further evaluation. Early detection and treatment lead to better outcomes.

Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers vary depending on the location and type of cancer, but may include:

  • Mouth sores that won’t heal
  • Red or white patches on gums
  • A lump, thickening, or mass in the cheeks or neck
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • Tongue numbness
  • Voice Changes
  • Difficulty moving tongue or jaw

These symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious conditions. Speak to your doctor or dentist if you develop these symptoms and have any concerns about head and neck cancer.

How is Head and Neck Cancer Treated?

Head and neck cancer treatment depends on the type of cancer and the location of the cancer. Your individual treatment plan also depends on factors like the stage of your cancer, your age, and your overall health. Your treatment options may include:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor and adjacent areas
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapies to treat specific characteristics of cancer cells
  • Immunotherapy
  • A combination of the above treatments

If you have been diagnosed with head and neck cancer, click here for more information on treatment options for your cancer type.

Head and neck cancer treatment is done to either remove the disease or control the growth of the disease. Your cancer care team will also try to preserve the function of the affected areas as much as possible. Your treatment plan may include support to help you return to normal activities as soon as possible. This may consist of reconstructive surgery or prosthesis to help restore your ability to swallow, your speech, or your appearance.

What Should I Ask My Doctor if I’ve been Diagnosed with Head and Neck Cancer?

Receiving a head and neck cancer diagnosis may feel overwhelming. Asking questions and having discussions about your diagnosis and treatment with your cancer care team can help you better understand your diagnosis and care. Making informed decisions about your care is an important part of your cancer care treatment. Your team wants to help you develop a plan that best fits your needs.

You may want to ask your doctor:

  • What kind of head and neck cancer do I have? Where is the tumor located?
  • What stage is my cancer, and how will this affect my cancer treatment?
  • Is it important to know whether HPV caused the tumor?
  • Are clinical trials available to me?
  • What is the goal of each treatment?
  • Who will be a part of my treatment team?
  • Should I see a speech-language pathologist?
  • How will this treatment affect my daily life?
  • What support services are available to me?
  • Will any lymph nodes need to be removed?
  • If surgery is recommended, what will recovery look like? Will it affect my ability to chew or swallow?
  • Should I seek a second opinion?

It may be helpful to write down your questions ahead of time and take notes while speaking with your doctor. You may also want to bring a friend or family member with you for support.

Call Minnesota Oncology For Information on Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

The cancer care specialists at Minnesota Oncology work with you to create the optimal treatment plan for your head or neck cancer. To request an appointment, please call (844) 317-4673 or Request Appointment online.




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