As April comes to a close, we’d like to take a moment to talk about oral, head, and neck cancers. Head and neck cancers typically begin in the squamous cells lining the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck, but they can also begin in the salivary glands, although they’re more rare. These cancers are categorized based on where they begin: oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity, and salivary glands. Although cancer can exist in other parts of the head region, such as in the brain, thyroid, or eye cancer, those are not considered a head and neck cancer.
Approximately 3% of all cancers in the United States are oral, head, and neck cancers, and they are twice as common among men as they are among women. Those over the age of 50 are also more susceptible to diagnosis. An estimated 60,000 people are diagnosed with oral, head, and neck cancers each year in the United States. Luckily, these cancers generally respond well to treatment if caught early enough, so awareness and early diagnosis are key.
Above all else, use of alcohol and tobacco (even smokeless, chewing tobacco) are the two greatest risk factors for developing oral, head, and neck cancers. Researchers estimate that they account for 75-85% of all cases, and the risk of developing these cancers increases in those using both alcohol and tobacco, as opposed to just using one or the other. Other risk factors include infection with cancer-causing strains of human papillomavirus (e.g., HPV-16), paan (betel quid), mate, preserved or salted foods, poor oral hygiene, regular/occupational exposure to wood or nickel dust, exposure to radiation, and infection with the Epstein-Barr virus, which is the best known cause of infectious mononucleosis.
It may be difficult to pick up on symptoms of oral, neck, and head cancers because they may seem relatively benign and can be caused by other, less serious conditions. Examples include:
- lumps or sores that don’t heal or go away
- a constant sore throat
- white or red patches on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth
- swelling or bleeding along the jaw in the mouth
- difficulty breathing, speaking, or swallowing
- painful swallowing
- frequent headaches
- difficulty hearing
- change or hoarseness in voice
- chronic sinus infections that do not respond to antibiotic treatment
- persistent pain the head region
If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms or changes, be sure to visit a doctor soon to have it checked out. Remember, if caught early, oral, head, and neck cancers can be very treatable through surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. For more information, visit The Oral Cancer Foundation or the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance.
- National Cancer Institute. Head and Neck Cancers. Accessed April 27, 2014. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Sites-Types/head-and-neck
- Medline Plus. Head and Neck Cancer. Accessed April 27, 2014. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/headandneckcancer.html
- Support for People with Oral and Head and Neck Cancer. Accessed April 27, 2014. http://www.spohnc.org/about_spohnc.php