What are head and neck cancers?
Cancer develops when the DNA in a normal healthy cell mutates or changes and becomes abnormal. This abnormal cell grows uncontrollably and doesn’t follow the normal processes of cell division and death. Head and neck cancer is diagnosed when these cancerous cells grow in the head and neck areas.
Screening tests look for cancers before they cause any symptoms. The screening process for head and neck cancer is generally done for those at high risk of getting these types of cancers.
Who’s at risk for head and neck cancer?
One of the biggest risk factors for developing head and neck cancer is the use of tobacco products. These can include cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. Secondhand smoke can increase the risk of cancer as well.
Heavy alcohol intake has also been associated with an increased risk of head and neck cancers. Other risk factors include:
● Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
● Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection
● Male sex
● Poor dental hygiene
● History of radiation exposure
● Workplace exposures to chemicals, fumes, asbestos
● Increasing age
Symptoms of head and neck cancer
Some of the symptoms of head and neck cancer include:
● Sore throat that is not improving
● Sores in the mouth or on the lip that aren’t healing
● Hoarse voice
● Jaw pain
● Ear pain
● Lumps on the neck
● Difficulty swallowing
Evaluating for head and neck cancer
People at high risk for developing head and neck cancer should have an exam by their healthcare provider at least once a year. During this exam, the mouth and throat should be evaluated. This should include the inside of the cheeks and under the tongue. The neck should be checked for the presence of any lumps or masses.
If someone has any abnormalities on the screening exam or presents with any of the above symptoms, further studies may need to be done to find the source of the changes.
An endoscopy can be done with a special camera inserted into the mouth and moved down the throat to get a good look at all of the structures in the mouth and throat. It can also be placed in through the nose to look from that direction as well. Other imaging tests can include:
● CT (computed tomography) scan
● MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
● PET (positron emission tomography) testing
Any abnormal areas seen can be biopsied and tested for the presence of cancer cells.
Screening for head and neck cancer can be done in several ways, including a physical exam, x-rays, scans, and biopsies. Be sure to ask your doctor about which screenings are right for you.