Head, Neck, and Oral Cancers
Most head and neck cancers are relatively preventable since they are highly correlated with tobacco use and alcohol consumption. They are also generally curable if caught early. Symptoms to watch out for include pain swallowing, trouble breathing, ear pain, a lump in the neck that lasts longer than two weeks, a growth in the mouth and bleeding from the mouth, nose or throat. Following is a description of cancers of the head and neck:
Malignant tissue in the bottom part of the pharynx is called hypopharyngeal cancer. The pharynx is a tube-like structure that goes from the back of the nose down to the windpipe and esophagus. Symptoms include sore throat and ear pain. Hypopharyngeal cancer is usually diagnosed through a physical examination, CT scan , MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), chest x-ray, esophogus x-ray or biopsy. Most hypopharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas thin flat cells that line the inside of the organ. Unfortunately, this cancer tends to be detected in later stages because early symptoms are rare. This cancer typically requires surgery to remove the malignant tissue, followed by radiation and/or chemotherapy treatment.
Laryngeal cancer occurs when there is malignant tissue in the larynx. Symptoms include pain swallowing, trouble breathing, ear pain, a lump in the neck, persistent coughing, hoarseness and/or a change in voice. Over 90 percent of laryngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which respond well to surgery and radiation and/or chemotherapy.
Thyroid cancer is usually recognized by thyroid nodules or swelling of the thyroid gland (goiter). A benign thyroid nodule is called an adenoma. Diagnostic techniques used to identify thyroid cancer are ultrasound, fine needle biopsy, nuclear medicine or CT scan. Other symptoms include hoarseness, difficulty breathing or swallowing, neck pain, swollen lymph nodes, weight loss or coughing. In addition to surgery to remove the cancerous tissue, your doctor may recommend a radioactive iodine treatment. In more serious cases, radiation and/or chemotherapy may be required. Note that if any or all of the thyroid is surgically removed, you will have to take replacement thyroid hormones in pill form for the remainder of your life to keep your metabolism functioning at an optimal level for your good health.
Cancer of the lining of the nasal cavity and throat is known as nasopharyngeal cancer. This cancer usually appears in tandem with a virus affiliated with infectious mononucleosis. Because this cancer frequently spreads to the lymph nodes, it is often diagnosed from of a lump or swelling in the neck. This fast-growing cancer then spreads to the nose, mouth or pharynx, which can cause symptoms such as snoring, nosebleeds or hearing loss. In more advanced cases, the cancer spreads to the lungs, liver and bones of the skull. In addition to surgical removal of the cancerous tissue, this cancer typically requires radiation and/or chemotherapy treatment.
Oral cancers appear as red or white patches of mouth tissue or small ulcers that look like a canker sores, but are painless. Oral cancers usually form on the tongue or floor of the mouth, but can occur on any tissue in and around the mouth. This includes cancers of the tonsils, adenoids, uvula (soft palate), roof of the mouth (hard palate), inside the lining of the cheeks, the gums, teeth, lips, the area behind the wisdom teeth and salivary glands. Some of these lesions may be benign, others may be malignant, and still others are precancerous. The most common type of precancerous cells in the mouth are:
- Leukoplakias: Leukoplakias consist of thick, white lesions that most commonly form beneath or around the tongue, cheeks or gums. These mouth sores are most often seen in tobacco users.
- Erythroplakias: These lesions appear as a red, raised area in the mouth and have a higher incidence of becoming malignant than leukoplakias.
A biopsy is often needed to diagnose leukoplakias and erythroplakias.
Squamous cell carcinomas are the most common type of oral cancer. Less common are lymphoma and salivery gland cancers. Most oral cancers occur in people age 45 and older. When cancers of the mouth do metastasize, they are most likely to spread to the lymph nodes in the neck.
If you have lasting symptoms that are suggestive of one of these cancers, please contact our office right away and schedule an appointment with one of our otolaryngologists.