What is head and neck cancer?

“Head and neck cancer” is a catch-all term that refers to the many different kinds of cancer that can develop in this part of the body—except for the eye and brain. Here are some examples of places where head and neck cancer can grow:

  • On the lips (although rare)
  • Inside the nose
  • Behind the nose
  • In the tongue, gums, and roof of the mouth
  • In the salivary glands, of the glands in the mouth that release saliva
  • In the throat
    • The throat, or pharynx, is made up of these sections
      • Nasopharynx
      • Oropharynx
      • Hypopharynx

What are signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer?

These signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer vary depending on the area the cancer is attacking.

For example, cancer of the mouth may have the following symptoms:

  • Swelling in the jaw
  • Red or white sores on the tongue, gums, and inner coating of the mouth that never heal
  • A lump or thickening
  • Dentures that give you some trouble
  • Pain or bleeding in the mouth with no apparent cause
  • Swollen jaw

When cancer develops in the back of your mouth, you might:

  • Find it difficult to speak or breath or feel like you have something stuck in your throat
  • Feel a lump or thickening in the area
  • Find it harder to swallow or chew your food
  • Have throat pain that never goes away
  • Have ringing or pain in your ears
  • Have a hard time hearing

Cancer of your voice box may cause:

  • Earaches
  • Painful swallowing

If you have cancer in your sinuses and nasal cavity, you might notice:

  • Your sinuses seem to stay blocked no matter what you do
  • You get sinus infections, but the antibiotics your doctor prescribed don’t seem to help
  • Your eyes swell and hurt
  • Your upper teeth hurt
  • Your dentures give you some trouble

What can I do to lower my risk of getting head and neck cancer?

Treatments for head and neck cancer depend on the area the cancer has attacked. Your doctor will work with you to devise a plan that suits your individual condition, needs, and symptoms. 

That said, prevention plays an important role in managing head and neck cancer. Luckily, there are many things you can do to lower your chances of developing head and neck cancer:

  • Stop smoking. And if you already don’t smoke, don’t start.
  • Do not use other tobacco products or “smoke-free” products as they include cancer-causing chemicals.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
  • Ask your doctor about the vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • When engaging in oral sex, use protection such as condoms and dental dams.
  • When enjoying the outdoors or going outside, protect your head and neck from the sun. Wear a hat with a wide brim and use lip balms that contain some form of skin protection.
  • See your dentist on a regular basis. Like most cancers, head and neck cancers are usually easier to treat when caught early.