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Head Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer is a complex disease that requires a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation and sophisticated treatment. Cancers of the head and neck include those of the oral cavity, larynx (voice box), pharynx, salivary glands and nasal cavities. To help you make informed decisions about the journey ahead, it’s important to educate yourself on the various types of head and neck cancer, including their symptoms, potential side effects and available treatments.

Head and neck cancer accounts for an estimated 3 percent of all cancers in the United States. An increasing number of younger patients in their 40s and 50s are being diagnosed with the disease, largely because of a rise in human papillomavirus (HPV)-linked cancers. Still, more patients overall are surviving head and neck cancer, thanks in part to public health awareness efforts about tobacco use—the single largest risk factor for the disease—and advances in treatment options.

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer originates in the tissues and organs of the head and neck area. Most head and neck cancers begin in the squamous cells that line the mouth, nose and throat. These types of cancer are generally referred to as squamous cell carcinomas and may include cancer that develops in the larynx, throat, lips, mouth, nose or salivary glands.

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

The most common symptoms of head and neck cancer are swelling and a sore that doesn’t heal. Other symptoms include voice changes or hoarseness, a neck mass, a sore throat that doesn’t respond to an antibiotic, coughing up blood, trouble swallowing or breathing, a red or white patch in the mouth, frequent nose bleeds or unusual discharge, ear pain or trouble hearing, headaches and frequent coughing.

What are the main types of head and neck cancer?

The five main types of head and neck cancer are classified according to the part of the body in which they develop:

  • Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer
  • Oral and oropharyngeal cancer
  • Salivary gland cancer

Head and neck cancer risk factors

  • Tobacco: This is the single largest risk factor for head and neck cancer. Smoking presents the greatest risk of developing this type of cancer, but secondhand smoke may also increase the risk. Chewing tobacco has been linked to oral cavity cancer.
  • Alcohol: Excessive drinking is the second largest risk factor for cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and esophagus.
  • Gender: Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer.
  • Age: Head and neck cancer is more common in people over the age of 50.
  • Certain illnesses: Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), human papillomavirus (HPV) and two inherited genetic syndromes—Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita—have been linked to head and neck cancer.
  • Sun exposure: Prolonged sun exposure may increase the risk of lip and oral cancer.
  • Radiation therapy: High doses of radiation therapy, particularly administered in the head and neck region, may increase the risk of developing this type of cancer.
  • Nutrition: Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies may raise a patient’s risk of developing the disease.
  • Vaping: Most physicians discourage vaping, although more studies are needed.

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