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The Ins and Outs of Head and Neck Cancer

This month, we would like to shine a spotlight on Head and Neck Cancers. Head and neck cancers account for approximately 4% of all cancers in the United States. Researchers estimated that more than 65,000 men and women in this country would be diagnosed with head and neck cancers in 2017. You can greatly reduce your risk of head and neck cancers by not using tobacco products, limiting the amount of alcohol you drink, and avoiding indoor tanning beds.

Cancers related to the head and neck start in several places. Brain cancers or cancers of the eye are not included this category.

Cancers of the head and heck can start:

  • In the sinuses (space around the nose on the inside of the skull)

  • Inside and behind the nose

  • In the mouth - this includes the tongue, the fumes, and the roof of the mouth

  • In the back of the mouth and the throat (also referred to as the pharynx) - There are three sections of the pharynx: nasopharynx, oropharynx, hypo-pharynx

  • In the larynx (or voice box)

  • On the lips (cancer on the lips is usually known as a type of skin cancer)

  • In the glands that make saliva for the mouth

What causes Head and Neck Cancers?

There are two substances that greatly increase the risk of developing head and neck cancers:

Alcohol and Tobacco

All tobacco products including cigarette, cigars, pipes, smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco, snuff, betel quid) are linked to head and neck cancer. Drinking beer, wine, or liquor also raises the risk of getting cancers of the mouth, throat, and voice box.

Other common risk factors include:

  • HPV or human papilloma virus. It’s linked to about 70% of cancers in the oropharynx (this includes the tonsils, soft palate, and base of the tongue).

  • Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, either from the sun or artificial UV rays like tanning beds, is a major cause of cancer on the lips.

  • Occupational Exposures can increase the risk of getting cancers in the nasopharynx. People working in the construction, textile, ceramic, logging, and food processing industries can be exposed toe substances like wood dust, formaldehyde, asbestos, nickel, and other chemicals.

  • Men are twice as likely as women to get head and neck cancers.

  • People over the age of 50

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancers?

Mouth symptoms:

  • A white or red sore on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth, that does not heal

  • Swelling in the jaw

  • Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth

  • A lump or thickening

  • Problems with dentures

Pharynx symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing or speaking

  • A lump or thickening

  • Trouble chewing or swallowing food

  • A feeling that something is caught in the throat

  • Pain in the throat that won’t go away

  • Pain or ringer in the ears or trouble hearing

Layrnx (voice box)

  • Pain when swallowing

  • Ear Pain

Sinus/nasal cavity symptoms:

  • Blocked sinuses that don’t clear

  • Sinus infections that do not respond to antibiotics

  • Nosebleeds

  • Headaches

  • Pain and swelling around the eyes

  • Pain in the upper teeth

  • Problems with dentures

How to reduce risk of head and neck cancers:

  • Don’t smoke. If you do smoke, quit

  • Don’t use smokeless tobacco products

  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink

  • If you are 26 years old or younger, talk to you doctor about HPV vaccines.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, or if you want to talk to your doctor about reducing your risk for head and neck cancers, be sure to make an appointment with your Blue Hills doctor today!


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