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Head & Neck Surgery

More Than Just Bad Habits…Causes of Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer accounts for 5 to 10 percent of all cancers in the United States. Head and neck cancer is more common in people over age 50 and three times more common in men than in women. If detected early, head and neck cancer is often curable. In fact, it can be prevented easily through some basic lifestyle changes.

What is head and neck cancer?

As its name implies, head and neck cancer includes cancer of the:

  • Lip, tongue, salivary glands, gums and other oral cavity tissues such as the inner lining of the cheeks
  • Floor of the mouth
  • Tonsils
  • Throat or pharynx
  • Voice box or larynx
  • Lymph nodes in the neck
  • Nasal cavity
  • Sinuses
  • Ear

Oral cancer is the most common type of head and neck cancer.

Because head and neck cancer involves the digestive and respiratory tracts, tumors – if left untreated – can interfere with eating, swallowing, and breathing, and can invade other parts of the body. The larger a tumor becomes, the more life-threatening it is. Twelve thousand Americans die from head and neck cancer each year. Early detection and treatment are critical and can save lives.

Other risk factors that contribute to head and neck cancer include poor oral hygiene, ill-fitting dentures, chronic iron deficiency, infections of the nose or nasal passages, and occupational hazards such as wood dust inhalation and nickel exposure.

What should I look for?

If you notice any of the following head and neck cancer symptoms, it is important to notify your physician immediately. Early detection and treatment are paramount and key to your good health.

Head and neck cancer symptoms to watch for:

  • A sore that does not heal or a growth in the mouth or on the tongue that persists
  • Painless swelling in the neck or side of the face
  • Nasal problems, such as bloody discharge, obstruction, or chronic sinus trouble
  • Blood in saliva or phlegm for several days
  • Pain when swallowing food or liquids
  • Decreased hearing or persistent earache, particularly if accompanied by swallowing difficulties, hoarseness or a lump in the neck
  • Hoarseness or other voice change lasting more than two weeks

One of the more common and serious types of oral cancer, tongue cancer, for example, begins as a small lump or thick white patch. Over time, this lump turns into an ulcer that has a firm, raised rim and a delicate center that bleeds easily. If left untreated, the tumor can spread to the gums, lower jaw, lymph nodes, neck, and floor of the mouth, destroying healthy tissues in all affected areas. Changes in skin can also indicate basal cell cancer, a disease that occurs from exposure to the sun.

How is head and neck cancer diagnosed?

Head and neck cancer is often difficult to diagnose early because many people only experience mild symptoms. That is why it is so important to see your physician and dentist regularly, especially if you are a smoker or drinker. Three-quarters of all oral cancers can be seen or felt in a physical examination by your physician and many cancerous lesions are detected by dentists. Cancer of the nasal passageways or middle ear may be more difficult to detect.

In addition to a thorough physical examination, your physician also uses blood tests, imaging techniques such as x-rays and magnetic resonance (MRI), tomograms, arteriograms, endoscopy and biopsy to make an accurate diagnosis and develop the most appropriate treatment plan.

How is head and neck cancer treated?

Successful treatment for head and neck cancer often involves surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or any combination of the three. In addition to tumor removal, other goals of successful treatment include restoration of swallowing, eating and speaking functions. Plastic surgery and speech therapy are sometimes required for cosmetic and functional reasons after surgical removal of head and neck tumors.

How can head and neck cancer be prevented?

There are two simple ways to prevent oral cancer and other types of head and neck cancer – quit using tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco or snuff) and reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption. Although typically associated with lung cancer, tobacco is also the most common cause of cancerous oral lesions, and nicotine is most likely the culprit. High levels of nicotine in chewing tobacco damage the inner lining of the cheeks, giving nicotine and other toxic chemicals easy access to the bloodstream and other parts of the body. Seventy-five percent of all cancerous mouth and throat tumors are related to tobacco and alcohol use. Heavy smokers (more than two packs a day) and heavy drinkers (more than four alcoholic drinks a day) have a seven-times greater chance of developing oral cancer than nonsmokers and nondrinkers.

Staying healthy requires good preventive maintenance. Part of this maintenance includes proper oral hygiene, which is an essential contributor to your overall well-being.

Maintaining good oral hygiene can be achieved by:

  • Reducing excessive use of alcohol
  • Eliminating use of all tobacco products
  • Seeing your dentist twice a year
  • Consulting with your physician if a lump, sore, or discolored area does not heal within 10 to 20 days
  • Wearing well-fitting denture (if you do not have your natural teeth)
  • Adhering to a well-balanced, nutritious diet, which includes fruits, as well as vitamins C and E

This head and neck cancer information is for educational purposes only and should not be relied upon as medical advice. It has not been designed to replace a physician’s independent judgment about the appropriateness or risks of a procedure for a given patient.

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To find a head and neck specialist for your needs, contact the Head & Neck Institute at 216.444.8500 (or toll-free 1.800.223.2273, ext. 48500)

This information is provided by Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition.

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