From Matthew H. Bertke, MD, radiation oncologist at OHC

April 17, 2024

Head and neck cancer, which encompasses numerous cancer types affecting various regions of the head and neck, is more common than many realize.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, head and neck cancers account for nearly 4% of all cancers in the U.S., more than 68,000 people, and are twice as common in men than women.  Most people diagnosed are over the age of 50.

This April, during Head and Neck Cancer Awareness month, OHC would like to empower you with the knowledge to identify important lifestyle changes and early symptoms. Prevention and early detection are key, and OHC offers the most advanced treatment options to provide patients with the best possible outcome.  Learn the types, signs and symptoms, risk factors, treatments, and more to defeat this cancer.

What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancer represents a group of cancers originating in different parts of the head and neck. These specific cancers can include:

What Should I Watch Out For?

Early detection is crucial for successful treatment. These are just a few of the signs you should be watching for in specific regions.  If you are experiencing any new or unusual symptoms, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider.

  • Mouth: If you notice a lump, sore, or white/red patch that doesn’t heal, bleeding, loose teeth, jaw pain, or difficulty swallowing, visit your provider.
  • Throat: Have you had a persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing, change in voice (hoarseness), or earache?
  • Sinuses and nasal cavity: If you are experiencing facial pain or swelling, blocked or bloody nose, or chronic sinus infections, visit your doctor.
  • Larynx: Have you noticed you’re having difficulty speaking, your voice is hoarse, or a lump on your neck?
  • Salivary glands: If you notice a new lump or swelling in the face or cheek, facial numbness, or weakness, have it checked.

Your primary care doctor is the first step for any unusual symptoms – they will refer you for testing or a specialist if there is cause for concern.

Causes and Risk Factors

There may be certain factors that increase your risk.

  • Tobacco use: Smoking and chewing tobacco are significant risk factors.
  • Alcohol consumption: Heavy alcohol use, especially with tobacco, further increases the risk.
  • Risky sexual behavior: Certain Human Papillomavirus (HPV) strains can cause specific head and neck cancers.
  • Sun exposure: Lip cancer risk is associated with excessive sun exposure.
  • Other factors: Occupational exposure to certain chemicals, radiation, and a weakened immune system might play a role, as well as genetic factors.

Prevention Measures

There are steps you can take to prevent and reduce your risk of head and neck cancer.

  • HPV Vaccine: The vaccine is eligible for both women and men beginning at age 9 and up to 45. This helps prevent cancers in the mouth, throat, head and neck, vagina, vulva, penis, or anus caused by 12 high-risk types.
  • Smoking cessation: Quitting smoking and chewing tobacco, including vaping, can dramatically reduce your risk.
  • Limiting alcohol: By reducing your alcohol consumption, you may be greatly reducing your risk of head and neck cancer.
  • Dental Care: Keep up with regular dental visits to a dentist, who will do an oral cavity exam during routine check-ups.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Diagnosis of head and neck cancer typically begins with a visit to your healthcare provider after you notice symptoms.  From there, your provider may suggest the following:

  • Physical examination: Assessing the affected area and checking for lumps.
  • Imaging tests: X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs to visualize the area.
  • Biopsy: Tissue sample removal for microscopic examination to confirm the presence and type of cancer.

If a biopsy returns a positive cancer result, you will be referred to an oncologist. OHC’s cancer team of medical and radiation oncologists will assist you with creating the best treatment plan that provides you with the most positive outcome possible.

What Are The Treatment Options?

The choice of treatment depends on the cancer type, stage, and your overall health. Common treatment options include:

  • Surgery: Your surgeon will remove the cancerous tissue and possibly surrounding lymph nodes.
  • Radiation therapy: Your radiation oncologist will use high-energy beams to kill cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy: Your medical oncologist will recommend medications delivered intravenously or orally to destroy cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy: Your medical oncologist may recommend drugs targeting specific proteins or pathways involved in cancer cell growth.
  • Immunotherapy: Your care team may suggest medications that boost the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells.
  • Clinical Trials: OHC currently offers a clinical trial for head and neck cancer patients whose cancer has metastasized. This study (SGN35-033) will determine whether brentuximab vedotin and pembrolizumab work together to provide a greater response than the standard of care therapy.  OHC is the only practice in the region to offer this trial.  Read here to learn more.

Your specific treatment plan may include a combination of these options, personalized to your specific cancer, offering you the best possible outcome.

What Is The Long-Term Outlook?

The prognosis for head and neck cancer varies depending on the type, stage, and individual factors. However, we know that early detection and treatment significantly improve the chance of successful outcomes. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for all stages of head and neck cancer combined is 66%. This rate increases to 83% when diagnosed at an early stage.  This is why education and reporting symptoms early to your healthcare provider are of the utmost importance in the overall outcome.

If you or a loved one have been recently diagnosed with head and neck cancer visit or call 888-649-4800 to schedule an appointment or request a second opinion with our expert team of cancer doctors.

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