Philadelphia (April 3, 2017) – Throughout April, Fox Chase Cancer Center aims to educate individuals about head and neck cancers, including risk factors, signs, and symptoms. Head and neck cancer includes a number of different malignant tumors that develop in or around the throat, larynx (voice box), nose, sinuses and mouth.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men are diagnosed with head and neck cancers nearly twice as often as women. These cancers are more likely to be diagnosed in people over age 50. Head and neck cancers account for about 3 percent of all cancers in the United States.
- Alcohol and Tobacco Use
Alcohol and all tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, pipes and smokeless tobacco) are the two lifestyle factors that contribute most to the risk of head and neck cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, at least 75 percent of head and neck cancers are caused by alcohol and tobacco use. Individuals who use both tobacco and alcohol are at a much greater risk for developing these cancers than those who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.
“Limiting alcohol and quitting smoking unquestionably reduces one’s risk of developing and dying from cancer. No matter how long you’ve smoked, the benefits of stopping are significant,” said Miriam N. Lango, MD, associate professor and head and neck oncologic surgeon at Fox Chase Cancer Center.
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection
Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV-16 or 18, is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers. “HPV-related oral cancers may be extremely difficult to detect since they typically occur on the back of the tongue or on the tonsils,” said Lango. “Often, patients come to clinical attention because they noticed a new lump in the neck, after it has spread to the lymph nodes. An experienced head and neck surgeon will be able to screen for this cancer.”
- Ultraviolet (UV) Light Exposure
UV light exposure, such as exposure to the sun or artificial UV rays like tanning beds, is a major cause of skin cancers including melanoma on the head and neck. “I urge individuals to avoid indoor tanning altogether and limit exposure to the sun,” said Lango. “When out in the sun, sunscreen is essential for UV protection, no matter what the season.”
Other risk factors include previous radiation exposure; poor oral and dental hygiene; occupational exposure to asbestos, wood dust, paint fumes, and certain chemicals; and infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (known for causing “mono”).
Signs and Symptoms
Some possible signs of head and neck cancer include:
- A lump in the neck
- A sore in the mouth that doesn't heal or that increases in size
- Persistent mouth or throat pain
- Lumps or white or red patches inside the mouth
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the tongue
- Throat soreness or the feeling that something is caught in the throat
- Changes in voice or speech
- Persistent and recurrent nosebleed
Having a symptom does not mean one has cancer, however. It may indicate a less serious condition. “No one should ignore any of the signs, no matter how unimportant they seem. You should see your doctor right away if any of them lasts beyond two weeks,” said Lango. “Head and neck cancers diagnosed early can be treated more effectively, and with fewer long-term side effects.”
Screening for Head and Neck Cancer
Specific screening guidelines for head and neck cancer have not been published by the American Cancer Society, National Comprehensive Cancer Network, or National Cancer Institute. “I strongly recommend that men and women visit their primary care doctor every year for a routine physical exam that includes a thorough examination of the neck, mouth, and throat,” said Dr. Lango. “I also recommend a yearly routine dental evaluation that screens for any signs of oral cancer.”