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Male patient discussing options with male physician

What are signs of head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancers typically begin in the squamous cells that line the mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck. They are categorized by the part of the body they originate in.

Types of head and neck cancer include:

  • Oral cancer - includes the lips, gums, inside the cheeks, the inside of the mouth, and the tongue
  • Laryngeal - includes the voice box and vocal cords
  • Pharyngeal (throat) - includes the part of the tube inside the neck that begins behind the nose and ends at the top of the esophagus
  • Thyroid and parathyroid - the gland below the voice box, in front of the neck

Head and neck cancer risk factors and symptoms

Head and neck cancers are almost twice as common in men as in women. They are most frequently diagnosed in people over 50 years old, and they account for roughly four percent of all cancers in the United States.

Risk factors for head and neck cancers include:

  • Alcohol and tobacco use
  • Contracting human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Occupational exposure to wood dust, asbestos and synthetic fibers, and other substances
  • Radiation exposure
  • Epstein-Barr virus infection
  • Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese ancestry

Symptoms of head and neck cancers include:

  • A lump or sore that does not heal
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Change in voice or hoarseness
  • Red or white patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth
  • Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth
  • Trouble breathing or speaking
  • Ear pain
  • Chronic sinus infections that are unresponsive to treatment

Head and neck cancer screening and diagnosis

If you are dealing with any of the above symptoms, your doctor will evaluate your medical history, perform a physical examination, and order diagnostic tests to determine the cause. These exams and tests could vary based on the symptoms displayed. To diagnose any form of head and neck cancer, it is necessary to examine a tissue sample under a microscope.

Once cancer is diagnosed, your doctor will perform an exam, order X-rays and other imaging procedures, and laboratory tests to determine the stage of the cancer. Once this is discerned, your medical team can plan a treatment strategy.

Head and neck cancer treatment and surgery

Each patient’s treatment depends on many factors, including the stage of cancer, location of the tumor, and the patient’s age and overall health. Treatment options for head and neck cancer include radiation therapy, surgery, chemotherapy, or a combination of these and other procedures.

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U.S. News & World Report

Home of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of only three NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in Texas, U.S. News & World Report has accredited Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center as one of the best hospitals for several specialties, including previous accreditation for compassionate patient-centered cancer care.