April is Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Month

by Jane Ashley

April 7-14, 2019 is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. Head and Neck cancer includes a family of cancers that occur in the larynx, mouth, nose, sinuses and throat. Many of the particular locations are uncommon locations for cancer to occur, but when this group of cancers that occur in the oral, head and neck are combined, over 65,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed annually.

Head And Neck Cancer Logo

Statistics and Types of Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer is more prevalent among men. Of the 65,000 people diagnosed annually, about 48,000 are men. Most patients are over 50. Almost 15,000 people die annually in the U.S. due to head and neck cancer.

Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell cancers. It begins in the flat squamous cells that are on the surfaces of the head and neck. There are five major types, grouped according to their location.

Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer. The larynx is often called your voice box.

Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer. These areas are the air-filled areas in our nasal cavity.

Nasopharyngeal cancer. This is the area of our upper throat located behind our nose.

Oral and oropharyngeal cancer. These cancers may occur in our mouth, on our tongue or in the middle of our throat (between the tonsils and upper part of our voice box).

Salivary gland cancer. The salivary glands produce saliva that keeps our mouth moist.

Head And Neck Cancer Stat

What are the Risk Factors?

Two substances are the biggest risk factors for head and neck cancer.

Tobacco use. Smoking cigarettes, pipes or cigars increases your risk for head and neck cancer. Chewing tobacco or snuff use also contribute to one’s risk for head and neck cancer. About 85 percent of head and neck cancer is attributed to tobacco use.

Alcohol. Frequent and/or heavy alcohol consumption increases the risk for esophagus, larynx, mouth and pharynx cancer.

Other risk factors include sun exposure (for lip cancer), the Epstein-Barr virus (the “mono” virus, the HPV virus, gender (2-3 times more men), age (over 40), poor oral/dental hygiene, occupational hazards, marijuana use, low vitamin A and B intake, acid reflux and a weakened immune system are all contributing factors for head and neck cancer.

What are the Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer?

Some symptoms seem obvious for head or neck cancer, but some symptoms are a little unexpected. Consult with your doctor or dentist about symptoms like these.

Sore throat that does not go away
Lump or sore that does not heal
Trouble swallowing
Hoarse-sounding voice
Difficulty speaking
Persistent earache
Sinus congestion
Bad breath
Mouth ulcers or sores that do not heal
Sore tongue
White or dark red patches on the sides of the mouth or the tongue
Bleeding from the mouth
Numbness in the mouth
Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck
Neck pain

Teeth Jawbone Damage

How is Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosed?

Your doctor will take a complete medical history and do a thorough physical exam. Your doctor will feel for lumps in your neck, lips, gums and cheeks. Your doctor performs a complete visual exam of your mouth, throat and nasal passages.

If cancer is suspected in the nasal passages or your throat, they will utilize an endoscope. Patients receive sedation — the endoscope is a thin, lighted, flexible tube that allows a physician to look at our throats, larynx, tonsils, sinus cavities and other inaccessible areas.

A biopsy determines if a lump, tumor or lesion contains cancer cells. The biopsy may also test to see if the person has HPV — people with HPV are at higher risk for head and neck cancer. The presence of HPV may help determine the most effective treatment.

Imaging tests such as CT scans, MRIs, and sonograms help determine the size and exact location of any cancerous tumors. These imaging tests help determine the stage of head and neck cancer.

Treatments for Head and Neck Cancer

A multidisciplinary team of medical professions treat head and neck cancer patients. Specialties include surgeons, oncologists, radiologists, dental specialists and a reconstructive/plastic surgeon. You may also get help from a speech pathologist and physical therapist. Just remember that you are never alone — there is help available for you and your family members throughout and after treatment.

Most treatment plans include surgery and/or radiation. Sometimes, chemotherapy is given before surgery to shrink the patient’s tumor. Chemotherapy, targeted therapy or immunotherapy is utilized for advanced or recurrent head and neck cancers.

Side Effects and Treatments

As we have learned from other kinds of cancer, cancer occurs in essential parts of body and may cause uncomfortable side effects.
Eating and drinking. The tumor itself may cause swallowing problems, the treatments may damage muscles and nerves. Swallowing exercises help strengthen the muscles during treatment and help keep them flexible.

Dry mouth. Radiation may damage the salivary glands and cause dry mouth, leading to dental problems. Use alcohol-free mouthwash, drink lots of fluids and suck on ice chips. Acupuncture helps if some of your salivary glands still work.

Tooth loss. Radiation sometimes damages the bones of your mouth resulting in tooth loss. Patients should get needed dental work done a month before radiation begins to minimize tooth damage.

Lymphedema. Removal of lymph nodes during surgery or damage to lymph nodes from radiation may cause lymphedema. Facial and neck tissues swell, causing discomfort. Be sure to let your healthcare team know ASAP — exercises and massage techniques ease the discomfort and help prevent further damage.

Body image/self-confidence. Weight loss, tooth loss or a prosthetic voice box may cause a patient emotional distress. Be sure to talk to your healthcare team about the feelings and emotions you are experiencing. Counseling helps many patients and their family adjust.

What Next?

Several organizations help people with head and neck cancer. These groups provide support and hope during and after treatment.

Support for People with Oral and Head and Neck Cancer (SPOHNC)
Head and Neck Cancer Alliance
American Head and Neck Society
Oral Cancer Foundation

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