Although relatively uncommon – they account for only three percent of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S. -- head and neck cancers present potentially life-threatening diagnoses. However, thanks to early detection and new, innovative treatments, doctors have come a long way in combating these upper body cancers.
There are many types of head and neck cancers, most of which begin in the mouth, tongue, nasal area and throat. While most are squamous cell carcinomas, others may be lymphomas or melanomas.
The symptoms of head and neck cancers often depend on the type and location of the cancer. Signs may include white or red patches inside the mouth or on the lips, a mouth or lip sore that won't heal, loose teeth, blood in the saliva or nose, persistent hoarseness or other unexplained voice changes, persistent sore throat or feeling that something is stuck in the throat, difficulty or pain during swallowing, a lump in the neck, a persistent earache or unexplained weight loss.
According to the American Cancer Society, smoking and alcohol abuse are responsible for the majority of these cancers. Recently, with the increased incidence of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection in both men and women, there has been an alarming increase in HPV-associated oral cancers. The HPV vaccine has been found to be effective in preventing infections and has already decreased precancerous cervical lesions. Most recently, the vaccine has been shown to decrease oral HPV infection and is currently being tested for treatment on neck cancers.
In the past, the only successful treatments for head and neck cancers involved surgery or radiotherapy. Unfortunately, those treatments can result in significant deformities of the face and neck, loss of the voice box and problems with breathing and swallowing. Fortunately, with improvements in chemotherapy, targeted agents and immunotherapies, the need for such radical operations can often be avoided.
As with any cancer, early detection is the best way to increase the chances of successful treatment. The first line of defense is regular checkups with a doctor and dentist. If a lump, sore, or discolored area in the mouth, throat or nose does not heal within 10 to 20 days, it’s important to seek a doctor or dentist’s opinion.
Patients with head and neck cancers should be referred to a center with a multidisciplinary cancer team who have experience in delivering these therapies and supportive care during these complex treatments.
NewYork-Presbyterian Cancer Centers provide high-quality, comprehensive cancer care at convenient locations throughout the New York metropolitan area, Westchester and the Lower Hudson Valley in state-of-the-art, comfortable environments. Board certified medical oncologists collaborate with a multidisciplinary team of specialists to provide each patient with an individualized plan of care. To find a location in your area visit nyp.org/cancerlocations.
NewYork-Presbyterian is one of the largest and most comprehensive hospitals in the nation, ranked New York’s No. 1 hospital for the 16th consecutive year, and No. 6 in the United States, according to U.S. News and World Report. Affiliated with two academic medical colleges – Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and Weill Cornell Medicine, NewYork-Presbyterian brings together internationally recognized researchers and clinicians to develop and implement the latest approaches for prevention, diagnosis and treatment. The Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center is one of only three NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers in New York State. NewYork-Presbyterian provides comprehensive cancer care at all of our locations across the New York Metro area including Westchester County and the Hudson Valley. Learn more at nyp.org/cancer.