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Head, Neck, and Oral Cancers

Since most head and neck cancers are correlated with tobacco use and alcohol consumption, they are relatively preventable and curable if caught early. Symptoms of head and neck cancers to watch for include pain swallowing, trouble breathing, ear pain, a lump in the neck that lasts longer than two weeks, a growth in the mouth and bleeding from the mouth, nose or throat. Following is a description of cancers of the head and neck:

Hypopharyngeal Cancer

The pharynx is a tube-like structure located in the back of the nose going down to the windpipe and esophagus. Malignant tissue in the bottom part of the pharynx is called hypopharyngeal cancer. Most hypopharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, thin flat cells that line the inside of the organ. Hypopharyngeal cancer is usually diagnosed through a physical examination, CT scan, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), chest x-ray, esophagus x-ray or biopsy. Symptoms of this cancer include a sore throat and ear pain. Unfortunately, it tends to be detected in later stages because early symptoms are rare. This cancer typically requires surgery to remove the malignant tissue, followed by radiation and/or chemotherapy treatment.

Laryngeal Cancer

Laryngeal cancer happens as malignant tissue presents itself in the larynx. Over 90 percent of laryngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which, fortunately, respond well to surgery and radiation and/or chemotherapy. Symptoms of laryngeal cancer include pain swallowing, trouble breathing, ear pain, a lump in the neck, persistent coughing, hoarseness and/or a change in voice.

Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer is usually manifested through thyroid nodules or as the thyroid gland (goiter) swells. A benign thyroid nodule is called an adenoma. To diagnose thyroid cancer, doctors use ultrasounds, fine needle biopsies, nuclear medicine or CT scans. Some symptoms include hoarseness, difficulty breathing or swallowing, neck pain, swollen lymph nodes, weight loss or coughing. It is likely that you will need surgery to remove the cancerous tissue, and your doctor may recommend a radioactive iodine treatment. For profound cases of thyroid cancer, radiation and/or chemotherapy may be required. If any or all of the thyroid is removed during surgery, you will have to take replacement thyroid hormones in pill form for the remainder of your life to keep your metabolism functioning at an optimal level for your good health.

Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Cancer of the lining of the nasal cavity and throat is known as nasopharyngeal cancer. Nasopharyngeal cancer is typically paired with a virus affiliated with infectious mononucleosis. Since this cancer frequently spreads to the lymph nodes, it is often discovered through a lump or swelling in the neck. Nasopharyngeal cancer is fast-growing and will quickly spread to the nose, mouth or pharynx which can cause snoring, nosebleeds or hearing loss. In more advanced cases, it spreads to the lungs, liver and bones of the skull. In addition to surgical removal of the cancerous tissue, this cancer typically requires radiation and/or chemotherapy treatment.

Oral Cancer

Oral cancers appear as red or white patches of mouth tissue or small ulcers. Oral cancers usually form on the tongue or floor of the mouth, but can occur on any tissue in and around the mouth. This includes cancers of the tonsils, adenoids, uvula (soft palate), roof of the mouth (hard palate), inside the lining of the cheeks, the gums, teeth, lips, the area behind the wisdom teeth and salivary glands. Some of these lesions may be benign, others may be malignant, and still, some are precancerous. The most common type of precancerous cells in the mouth are:

  • Leukoplakias: Leukoplakias consist of thick, white lesions that most commonly form beneath or around the tongue, cheeks or gums. These mouth sores are most often seen in tobacco users.
  • Erythroplakias: These lesions appear as a red, raised area in the mouth and have a higher incidence of becoming malignant than leukoplakias.

A biopsy is often needed to diagnose leukoplakias and erythroplakias.

Squamous cell carcinomas are the most common type of oral cancer. Less common are lymphoma and salivary gland cancers. Most oral cancers occur in people age 45 and older. When cancers of the mouth do metastasize, they are most likely to spread to the lymph nodes in the neck.

If you have persistent symptoms that suggest one of these cancers, please schedule an appointment with one of our otolaryngologists.