Head and neck cancer accounts for six percent of all cancers in the United States, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.
When detected at stages one and two, the survival rate for this type of cancer, which affects the mouth, throat, larynx, salivary glands, sinuses and nasal cavity, is more than 80 percent. However, more than half of all cases are diagnosed in later stages.
The primary reason people delay seeking treatment is they don’t know what they’re looking for.
“People view the head and neck region differently than other parts of the body,” said Catholic Health’s Cancer Institute at Good Samaritan Hospital Head and Neck Surgeon Arnbjorn Toset, MD. “When they feel a lump on their breast or see blood in their stool, they immediately associate it with cancer and call their physician. That’s not always the case with head and neck cancers.”
Dr. Toset believes this is partially due to the symptoms associated with this type of cancer.
“It may start as a lump on your neck, a sore in your mouth that doesn’t heal or sudden hoarseness in your voice,” he said. “These are inconveniences we tend to brush off or cope with, when in reality they are symptoms for the early stages of cancer.”
Tobacco use is one of the main causes of head and neck cancers. Someone who smokes or uses chewing tobacco is 15 times more likely to develop the disease. Heavy alcohol use is also a key source. At least 75 percent of head and neck cancers are caused by these two risk factors, according to the American Cancer Association.
Even non-smokers and those who do not consume alcohol are still at risk of head and neck cancer.
According to Dr. Toset, this cancer is increasingly being detected in otherwise healthy adults in their forties and fifties and is related to human papilloma virus infections. Vaccinations at early age would help prevent such infections from causing cancers.
Additionally, Dr. Toset suggests the first step to preventing these types of cancer starts at home.
“When caught at an early stage, these cancers are extremely treatable,” said Dr. Toset. “You just need to be diligent in your self-exams and know the signs and symptoms.”
For those without a monthly head and neck self-exam routine, Dr. Toset recommends these four steps.
- Check the neck for lumps
- Look at lips and cheeks
- Bite gently; look at the gums
- Open mouth; look at the tongue, throat and roof of the mouth
If there is discomfort in any of these areas or you notice something unusual, Dr. Toset suggests contacting a primary care physician.
Diagnosis of these tumors often requires collaboration between dentists, oral surgeons and head and neck surgeons; if cancer is detected, it is highly treatable and potentially curable with modern therapies including biological therapies, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery.
For more information on head and neck cancers, including treatment options, please visit chsli.org/oncology or call (844) 86-CANCER.