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April 29, 2022

What You Should Know About Head and Neck Cancers

What You Should Know About Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancer includes cancerous cells around or in the mouth, throat, salivary glands, sinuses, or larynx. This broad area consists of several different parts and functions of our body. For example, our throat (pharynx) begins behind our nose and runs down to our esophagus. It has three parts based on location: the upper, middle, and lower. Cancer occurs when abnormal cells in our body grow out of control, making it harder for healthy cells to function. Keep reading to learn more about head and neck cancers symptoms, detection, and treatments.

Common Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers

Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers will differ based on the exact location of the cancer. Those with cancer of the throat will experience symptoms differently from those with cancer in the oral cavity. Generally, some common symptoms include swelling, lumps, change in voice, discoloration in the mouth, and weight loss. For specific head and neck cancers, some other symptoms are:

  • Oral cavity: This affects the lips and mouth. There may be noticeably different colored patches in your mouth or on your tongue and bleeding or discomfort.

  • Nasal Cavity: Chronic infections, blocked sinuses, nosebleeds, headaches, pain in the cheeks or around the teeth. This may also lead to ringing in the ears.

  • Throat/Pharynx: Difficulty breathing or discomfort while swallowing, neck or throat pain, earaches, trouble hearing or speaking.

  • Voicebox/Larynx: Since this is focused on the vocal cords and the epiglottis (the piece of skin that hangs in the back of your throat), signs often include changes in the voice, pain when swallowing, or discomfort in the ear.

  • Salivary Glands: This part of our body creates spit that helps us break down foods. If this is affected by cancerous cells, swelling, numbness, or pain in the facial areas is often experienced.

How Head and Neck Cancers Are Detected

There is no set screening program for identifying head and neck cancers. But there are several ways these cancers are commonly found.

  • During your annual check-up, your doctor can look for anything abnormal in and around your neck and throat. If you find you are experiencing any discomfort or irregularity, this should be discussed with your physician to further determine if it is head and neck cancer.

  • Your dental professionals will also look for any abnormalities during your routine check-ups.

If anything is suspected, you may undergo blood testing, tissue sample collection, or imaging to see more clearly if there are any cancerous cells or growths. An endoscopy may be recommended. This is a procedure where a physician will insert a tube down your throat to look for anything irregular.

Treating Head and Neck Cancers

If you receive a diagnosis of a head or neck cancer, you’ll see an oncologist. This is a doctor that specializes in cancer treatment. During cancer treatment there are several different medical professionals involved including:

  • A surgeon to remove the cancer

  • Nurses who help manage and give your treatment

  • Social workers to help with finding resources and mental health

  • Dietitians for nutrition support

  • Speech therapists, especially if the cancer affects an area that impacts speech.

The specific recommended treatment will be based on the information your physician has collected. The location of the cancer, stage, age of the patient, size of the tumor, and the patient's general health will all be factors of creating a treatment plan.

Most head and neck cancer patients have surgery to remove the tumor or growths as well as radiation therapy after surgery. Some patients also need chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy. Often, multiple treatment types are used to be sure all of the cancer cells are killed.

Read our blog for questions to ask your cancer care team about a head and neck cancer diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up care.

Managing Side Effects of Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

While the side effects of head and neck cancers can be difficult to cope with, your care team will work with you to make sure you have the highest quality of life possible. Before treatment, make sure you discuss possible side effects with your cancer care team to be as prepared as possible. Some common side effects of head and neck cancer treatment include difficulty chewing or swallowing, dry mouth, dental issues, and impaired hearing or speech. This will vary depending on what area is being targeted for treatment. Your oncologist can help you understand what to expect based on the treatments you receive.

Many patients also experience depression or exhaustion that doesn’t get better with rest. This is called fatigue. Keep your team updated on how you are feeling throughout the process. There are ways to address these issues to help you feel better.

Head and Neck Cancer Care Available in the South Chicago Area

Affiliated Oncologists are proud to be a person-centered care facility, putting patients and their families first. Our cancer care team is full of experienced physicians and staff who support every step of your journey. Our locations include Chicago Ridge, Mokena, Hazel Crest, Oak Lawn, and Palos Heights, IL. Request an appointment with our cancer specialists today to begin your treatment path with a team that puts you first.

Categories: Head and Neck Cancers