Know the Signs: Head and Neck Cancer Awareness

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By Melanie Hicks, MD

Dr. Melanie Hicks Headshot
Dr. Hicks is a physician at Vanderbilt Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Lebanon, in Lebanon, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Clinical Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Head and neck cancer refers to cancers that form in the mouth, throat, sinuses and salivary glands. These cancers are twice as common in men compared to women and appear more frequently in individuals over the age of 60. Head and neck cancers typically begin in squamous cells, which are thin, flat cells that make up the outer layer of skin and line the inside of the nose, mouth and throat. Common diagnoses include head and neck cancers caused by alcohol and tobacco usage, skin cancers of the head and neck such as basal cell carcinoma, and cancer of the tongue and tonsils.

Approximately 75% of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use. Individuals who use both products increase their risk of developing head and neck cancer by 15-18 times compared to those who do not. This is a result of alcohol helping the chemicals in tobacco enter the cells of the mouth and throat where they cause more damage. It is important to note that smoking exposure has a cumulative effect on health, meaning the total number of cigarette packs consumed directly correlates to the likelihood of developing disease.

Skin cancers of the head and neck are caused by sun exposure and are also more likely to occur in immunocompromised individuals including transplant recipients or individuals who are prescribed immunosuppressants. To avoid exposure, it is critical to apply daily SPF, wear hats and even long sleeve shirts to protect your skin. Sun exposure is not only limited to time spent outdoors. The sun’s harmful UV rays can pass through windows when you are spending time inside or as you are driving.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States and is a rising cause of oropharyngeal cancer in younger, non-smoking individuals. HPV can infect the back of the throat, including the tongue and tonsils, also known as the oropharynx. Despite HPV’s prevalence, it is important to note that the body often clears the infection on its own within one to two years. If the body is unable to dispel HPV on its own, the infection can develop into oropharyngeal cancer over the course of years.

Common symptoms that may indicate the need for medical intervention include a lump or lesion in the neck that persists longer than a week, grows in size, or does not heal. Additional signs include changes in swallowing, difficulty breathing, changes in voice, loss of appetite, and unintentional weight loss. It is important to be aware of these symptoms because early detection plays a critical role in diagnosis and receiving timely care.

The most common forms of treatment for head and neck cancer depends on the location, size, progression, and whether it is a primary or recurrent tumor. Treatment options typically include a combination of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or immunotherapy. Early detection could lead to a less invasive surgery with fewer complications to the body’s functions such as speaking or swallowing.

Due to the location, head and neck cancers almost always impact the body’s ability to perform necessary, daily tasks. Treatment often impacts speech, breathing and senses including smell or taste. Physical therapy is a critical step in recovery and often includes speech and swallowing therapy. Vanderbilt University Medical Center operates a survivorship clinic for patients after treatment of head and neck cancers to monitor long-term side effects, provide mood therapy and non-opioid pain management in addition to rehab and physical therapy.

While there is no preventative screening method, understanding the risk factors and symptoms associated with head and neck cancers remains paramount. Make an effort to reduce exposure by wearing daily SPF, stopping the use of tobacco products and alcohol, or scheduling regular checkups with a dentist who may notice early signs of disease. These preventative measures will improve your quality of life and protect you from environmental factors that increase the likelihood of developing head or neck cancer.

If you have more questions or concerns about head or neck cancer, the team at Vanderbilt Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Lebanon is available to help at (615) 444-6667.

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