Head and neck cancer affects the mouth, throat, nose, larynx, lips and salivary glands. Approximately 4% of all cancers diagnosed annually (about 65,000 cases) are concentrated in the head and neck areas. Oral cancers can be found during routine dental checkups and annual physicals, which is why it’s very important to make and keep these wellness appointments. Symptoms depend on what area of the head and neck they start, and include:
- Chronic sore throat.
- Changes in voice.
- A lump on the neck.
- Ear pain.
- Pain when swallowing.
Tobacco (both smokeless and cigarettes) and excessive alcohol use are the two main causes of head and neck cancer. About half of all head and neck cancers occur in nonsmokers, where the majority of those show evidence of human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. There is still a great deal of research being done in this area. Given that HPV is causing more cancers, it is recommended preteens receive the HPV vaccine between the ages of 11 and 12, ages at which they can develop immunity before exposure. Dentures that fit improperly can also be a risk factor for developing oral cancer.
Head and neck cancer treatment depends on the location of the tumor causing it, the stage of the cancer and overall health of the patient. There are three types of treatment, and depending on the patient, some could receive one or a combination of all three:
- Surgical: Can be a simple or extensive surgery to remove the tumor.
- Radiation: High doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation is the cornerstone for the treatment of many head and neck cancers.
- Chemotherapy: Used in combination with other treatments, usually radiation.
Those diagnosed with head and neck cancer can turn to and trust the exceptional network of doctors and providers at Cone Health Cancer Center for comprehensive care that includes advanced treatment along with a plan to prevent and manage serious side effects.
Rick Diehl, BSN, RN, CHPN, is a head and neck oncology navigator at the Cone Health Cancer Center at Wesley Long Hospital. He received his Bachelor of Science in nursing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2007. He has 7 years of experience in hospice and palliative care, and has been the head and neck oncology navigator for 3 years.