What Is Head and Neck Cancer?
By Suneeta Pinnamaneni, MD –
The term “head and neck cancer” refers to a variety of tumors that can occur in the throat, larynx (voice box), nose, sinuses and mouth. Cancer that occurs in the mouth may also be considered a type of head and neck cancer. More information on cancers of the mouth, oropharynx and oral cavity can be found online at www.cancercenter.com.
Most head and neck cancers are called squamous cell carcinomas, because they begin on the surface layer of the region within the head or neck, where the cells are flat and squamous. Cancer confined to this layer of cells is called carcinoma in situ. When the malignant cells spread into deeper layers of cells, it is called invasive squamous cell carcinoma.
Approximately 52,000 people are diagnosed with head and neck cancers each year. More than twice as many men than women have head and neck cancer. As a group, these malignancies (including cancers of the mouth) account for about three to 5fivepercent of all cancers in the United States. About 11,000 people die from head and neck cancer each year. Fortunately, the number of people with head and neck cancer and mortality associated with this disease has been decreasing over the past 20 years.
Types of Head and Neck Cancer
There are several types of head and neck cancer, classified according to the part of the body in which they occur. Because risk factors, diagnosis and treatment can vary depending on the subtype, complete information for each subtype of head and neck cancer is provided separately.
- Laryngeal Cancer: The larynx is located at the top of the windpipe, or trachea. Also called the voice box, this tube-shaped organ is involved in breathing, talking and swallowing.
- Hypopharyngeal Cancer: The hypopharynx is the lower part of the throat, which surrounds the larynx. This part of the body is also called the gullet.
- Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancer: Behind the nose is a space where air passes on its way to the throat. This region is called the nasal cavity. The air-filled areas surrounding the nasal cavity are the paranasal sinuses.
- Nasopharyngeal Cancer: The nasopharynx is an air passage located at the very upper part of the throat, just behind the nose.
- Salivary Gland Cancer: The salivary glands make saliva, which is essential for breaking down food.
- Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer: Both the mouth and the tongue are part of the oral cavity. The oropharynx is the middle of the throat, extending from the tonsils to the top of the larynx.
What Are the Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancer?
As with many types of cancer, the risk of developing a head and neck cancer may be increased by certain lifestyle behaviors and environmental factors, such as smoking and exposure to carcinogens.
Risk factors for head and neck cancer also depend on the location and type of cancer.
Tobacco is a risk factor common to all head and neck cancers. The National Cancer Institute reports that 85 percent of people who develop head and neck cancers have a history of tobacco use, particularly smoking. Chewing tobacco is also linked to an increased risk for oral cavity cancer.
Men are three times as likely to develop this type of cancer.
Other head and neck cancer risk factors common to most forms of the disease include:
- Alcohol abuse
- Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- Exposure to high doses of radiation therapy, particularly in the head or neck region
Cancer-Specific Risk Factors for Head & Neck Cancers
Certain factors may be a risk for one type of head and neck cancer and not another.
Some of the specific risk factors by head and neck cancer type include:
- The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), known for causing “mono” in young adults, may be associated with the development of certain cancers, including nasopharyngeal cancer.
- Two inherited genetic syndromes, Fanconi anemia and Dyskeratosis congenita, may greatly increase the likelihood of developing throat and mouth cancers in people at an early age.
- Exposure to sunlight may increase the risk of lip and oral cancer.
What Are the Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer?
The ears, nose and throat are the most common areas affected by head and neck cancers. The symptoms may depend on where the cancer develops and how it spreads.
For example, tumors in the larynx or pharynx may be felt as a lump in the throat. Cancer in the mouth may cause sores in the mouth or swelling of the jaw.
In addition to physical signs of head and neck cancer, like tumors, these cancers often cause symptoms that are similar to less serious conditions, like the common cold. Changes in voice, headaches, sore throat or a cough may be symptoms of throat cancers. Pain or ringing in the ears may also accompany certain head and neck cancers.
Some common head and neck cancer symptoms include:
- A lump in the nose, neck or throat
- A persistent sore throat
- Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
- Unexplained weight loss
- Frequent coughing
- Change in voice or hoarseness
- Ear pain or trouble hearing
Understanding Symptoms of Head & Neck Cancers
Many symptoms of head and neck cancer may appear harmless at first. However, unlike a common cold, the symptoms do not go away. If you have a sore throat or a cough that persists longer than a couple of weeks, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor or call Hematology & Oncology Consultants of Florida at 352-343-6900.