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Head and Neck Cancer

What are Head and Neck Cancers?

Cancers of the mouth, salivary glands, throat, ears, nose, and sinuses are called head and neck cancers.

Mouth cancers may occur on the lips, tongue or any other region of the oral cavity.

Throat cancers are cancers of the pharynx and larynx. Other cancers in the neck include cancers of the trachea (windpipe), esophagus (food pipe) and thyroid.

Head and neck cancers usually arise from the cells lining the structures called squamous epithelial cells. 

Types of Head and Neck Cancers and Their Related Symptoms

Head and neck cancers are named according to the region of origin. Some of the common head and neck cancers include:

Cancer of the Oral Cavity

Commonly called mouth cancer, oral cavity cancer may arise from the gums, tongue, inner cheeks, roof (palate) or floor of the mouth. It may appear as a red or white patch or lump and may cause pain, swelling or bleeding. 

Cancer of the Pharynx and Larynx

Cancer of the pharynx or larynx is commonly called throat cancer. The pharynx is the region behind the nasal and oral cavity. It is about 5 inches long. The larynx is commonly called the voice box and is present in the lower pharynx.

Cancer of the pharynx or larynx is characterized by difficulty swallowing, breathing, hearing and pain in the ear, throat or neck.

Cancer of the Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinuses

The space inside the nose is the nasal cavity. The facial bones around the nasal cavity contain small spaces called paranasal sinuses. Cancers occurring in these structures can result in blocked sinuses, headache, nosebleeds, chronic sinus infections, pain in the upper teeth and eye swelling.

Cancer of the Salivary Glands

There are three pairs of salivary glands, two on the floor of the mouth and one in the cheek. Cancer may arise in one or more of these glands causing symptoms such as swelling around the jaw and under the chin, facial pain and numbness or paralysis of facial muscles. 

Head and neck cancer can manifest as a sore or swelling in the mouth, a lump in the neck and change in the color of your skin.  Blood may be present in your saliva or phlegm.

Cancer cells from the head and neck can migrate to other parts of the body such as the lungs. This is called metastasis. 

Causes of Head and Neck Cancer

  • Head and neck cancers may be associated with:
  • Tobacco use
  • Smoking
  • Improper oral hygiene
  • Certain viral infections
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • Breathing in cancer-causing chemicals such as asbestos
  • Aging
  • Being male
  • Being African-American 
  • Improper nutrition
  • Acid reflux
  • A weak immune system

Diagnosis of Head and Neck Cancer

Your doctor will perform a physical examination noting any lumps, change in skin color, bleeding, throat infections, blocked sinuses, etc. Information about your medical history and current medical status is obtained. Your doctor may order:

  • Blood and Urine Tests
  • Tests to diagnose viral infections
  • X-ray, MRI or CT scan
  • An endoscopic examination
  • Biopsy of a cancerous lesion

These procedures help your doctor determine if you have cancer and how far it has advanced or spread.

Treatment of Head and Neck Cancer

Your treatment depends on a number of factors including:

  • The type of cancer
  • Stage of cancer
  • If the cancer is related to a viral infection such as HPV
  • Your age and current health condition

The treatment may include one or a combination of the following options:

  • Chemotherapy: It involves the use of drugs to treat cancer. The drugs may be pills or intravenous injections.
  • Radiation: X-rays are used to kill cancerous cells. 
  • Surgery: Your surgeon removes the lump or tumor with instruments or laser. Lymph nodes in the neck may also be removed if there is a chance of cancer spreading to them. 
  • Targeted Cell Therapy: It involves the use of drugs that specifically target certain parts of the cancer cells to prevent damage to other cells of the body.
  • Biological Therapy: A healthy immune system is necessary to fight the cancerous cells. Biological therapy involves administering interleukins or interferons to naturally defend your body against cancerous cells. 

Some of these treatments target cancer locally while others have a systemic effect and can destroy cancer cells spread to other parts of the body. 

Depending on the type and extent of cancer and the choice of treatment, you may experience side effects or loss of function such as speech, hearing or swallowing. Following treatment, you will need adequate rehabilitation.

Location & DirectionsENT Jacksonville

1370 13th Avenue South, Suite 115 Jacksonville Beach, FL 32250

  • American Board of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery
  • American College of Surgeons
  • Georgetown University School of Medicine
  • Miller School of Medicine