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Cancers of the head and neck: Causes, what to look for and when to see a doctor
General Wellness

Cancers of the head and neck: Causes, what to look for and when to see a doctor

By Charissa Kahue MD, Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT)
Posted: April 20, 2021

There are many types of cancers that can affect the head and neck region. These are typically broken down based on location:

  • Oral cavity (mouth)
  • Pharynx (throat – consists of nasopharynx, oropharynx, hypopharynx)
  • Larynx (voice box)
  • Sinonasal (sinuses and inside of nose)
  • Salivary gland
  • Thyroid gland
  • Skin cancer (scalp, face, neck)

Although the brain and eyes are part of the head and neck, they are not grouped into the category of “head and neck cancer” since they are treated by other specialties.

What causes head and neck cancer?

There are many risk factors that increase someone’s chances of developing head and neck cancer. Risk factors include tobacco use (cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, dip), alcohol use, and poor dental hygiene.

Sun exposure and/or prior organ transplantation can be risk factors for developing skin cancer.

There are also viruses that are known to increase one’s chances of developing a cancer, including human papillomavirus (HPV) and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).

However, it’s important to know that people can still develop head and neck cancers even if they are not impacted by any of the above-listed risk factors.

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How is head and neck cancer diagnosed?

Diagnosis depends on what type of cancer it is, but a biopsy is almost always required.

If the area in question is in the mouth or nose, biopsies can sometimes be done while a patient is awake in the office, much like a dental procedure.

If the area in question is lower/deeper in the throat, it may require a biopsy under anesthesia, as a scheduled surgery.

If there is a “knot” or lump in the neck, it can sometimes be biopsied while the patient is awake by putting a needle through the skin and removing cells from the mass. This can either be done in an ENT’s office or by a radiologist.

Who treats head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancers can be treated by a number of healthcare professionals. Depending on the situation, a person might be treated by:

  • Surgeons — typically those who specialize in Ear, Nose and Throat (also known as ENT)
  • Medical oncologists — administer medications such as chemotherapy and immunotherapy
  • Radiation oncologists

What are some concerning symptoms for head and neck cancer?

Our providers with UTMP Head and Neck Surgery typically recommend that anyone with the following symptoms for longer than 2­­–3 weeks seek a head and neck cancer screening evaluation:

  • Knot or lump in neck
  • Oral pain/ulcer
  • Oral bleeding/coughing up blood
  • Loose teeth (for no apparent reason)
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Ear pain/muffled hearing on one side
  • Nose bleeds
  • Hoarse voice
  • Noisy breathing while awake
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Concerning spots on skin (e.g. getting larger, bleeding, painful)