About Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer is a collective term given to cancers that begin in the head and neck region, such as the head, throat, mouth, eyes, sinuses, larynx (voice box), nose and salivary glands. Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas that begin in the flat cells found lining the surface of the various tissues. Head and neck cancers are relatively more common in men and usually found in people over the age of 40. Though many high-risk factors may lead to head and neck cancers, tobacco use, consumption of alcohol, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infection are common. The five-year survival rate or head and neck cancer life expectancy five years after diagnosis depends upon multiple factors. There are over 30 types of head and neck cancers, the most common ones being; Oral cancer, Cancer of the larynx, Nasal or sinus cancer, Salivary gland tumours, Thyroid cancer.


Symptoms and head and neck cancer treatment options depend upon the type of cancer, location, spread, and tissue type involved. The symptoms of these cancers can range from an unhealing, painful sore in the mouth or throat to a lump in the neck, difficulty in swallowing or hoarseness of the voice. Since these symptoms may be seen in other non-cancerous conditions as well, it is recommended that you visit your doctor or dentist for an evaluation.


Symptoms of some head and neck cancers include:

  • Laryngeal cancer: Difficulty speaking, painful swallowing, and hoarseness of voice. Some people may experience difficulty in breathing.


  • Oral cancer: A non-healing sore or ulcer, white or reddish patch on the cheek, tongue or gums, a growth or swelling of the jaw, ill-fitting dentures, unusual bleeding from the mouth are some signs and symptoms of oral cancer.


  • Throat (pharyngeal) cancer: Pain during swallowing, pain in the neck or throat that does not reduce, ringing in the ears, and some people may have trouble hearing.


  • Salivary gland: A lump or swelling under the chin or below the jawbone, numbness, tingling or paralysis of the face, pain in the face or jaw.


  • Cancer of the nose or paranasal sinuses: Nasal obstruction, blocked sinuses that do not clear with routine measures, frequent headaches, bleeding from the nose, pain in the upper teeth, ill-fitting upper dentures, swelling in the eyes, and sinus infections that do not subside with medications are some common symptoms of nasal and paranasal sinus cancers.


The diagnostic tests recommended for head and neck cancer depends upon the type of cancer your doctor suspects, results of your early medical tests done, your signs and symptoms, age and overall health.


Tests recommended to diagnose head, and neck cancers are:

  • Routine blood and urine tests.
  • Endoscopy of the throat or nose to examine structures.
  • Imaging tests like X-rays, CT scan, MRI, Bone scan and PET scan.
  • Biopsy to collect and analyse a sample of the affected tissue.
  • Tumour marker test to identify genes or proteins that are unique to the tumour.


After evaluating your lab tests, diagnostic reports, and your symptoms, the oncologist will determine how to treat head and neck cancer. The standard of care for these cancers includes– surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy and combination therapy. Your doctor may recommend you sign up for a clinical trial (a research study that tests a new approach or drug for treating cancer).


Many head and neck cancers can be completely cured if detected early. The primary goal of treatment is to eliminate cancer. However, due to the large number of structures in the head and neck region, preserving the nerves, muscles and other tissues is important. When it is impossible to remove the entire tumour with surgery, additional treatments like radiation or chemotherapy may be required. Stage 3 and stage 4 head and neck cancer have a high chance of recurrence after treatment compared to early stages.


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