Cancer can grow anywhere in the body, even the head and neck. These cancers are twice as common among men and they are usually diagnosed in adults over 50 years old. The common types of head and neck cancer include:
- Oral cavity
- Oropharnygeal (in the throat or back of the mouth)
- Nasal cavity
- Paranasal sinus
- Laryngeal (in the voice box)
- Hypopharyngeal (behind or beside the voice box)
Most of the time people don’t find out that they have head and neck cancer until symptoms start to surface that warrant visiting the doctor. Sometimes a dentist may be able to pinpoint early changes during your routine dental cleanings; however, your doctor may send you to an otolaryngologist for a more comprehensive evaluation and diagnosis.
During your evaluation, an ENT doctor will ask you questions regarding your current health and any symptoms you are experiencing. From there, your doctor will determine the best tests to perform to detect head and neck cancer. These tests may include a physical examination of the head and neck, a CT or MRI scan, or a biopsy.
If you are diagnosed with head and neck cancer the first thing your doctor will want to do is determine what stage the cancer is (which simply means determining how far the cancer has spread). The stages let us know the extent of the cancer’s growth but also which organs have been affected or could soon be affected. Stages of cancer range from 0-4, with the lower stages indicating that the cancer hasn’t spread to other organs or isn’t spreading quickly.
Treating Head and Neck Cancer
Today, there are many treatment options for head and neck cancer and your doctor will be able to go through the different options to determine the right plan for you. The type of treatment or treatments you will receive will depend on the stage and location of your cancer.
Localized treatments such as surgery or radiation are used to treat only the cancer and do not affect the body as a whole, while systemic treatments such as chemo and targeted therapy drugs will affect the whole body. Systemic treatments are often used on patients with more advanced stages of cancer that have spread to other areas of the body.
Surgery may be recommended if the cancer isn’t in a difficult location in which to operate. Surgery can be performed to remove lymph nodes from the neck or to remove part or all of a structure such as the voice box or jawbone.
If you are noticing changes in your voice, an oral sore or lesion that doesn’t heal, or a mass in the head or neck region it’s a good idea to see your ear, nose, and throat doctor right away for a thorough examination. The sooner head and neck cancer is detected the better.