When is a Sore Throat a Serious Problem? When It’s a Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer refers to several types of cancers that affect the head and neck areas of the body. The most common cause of these cancers is tobacco and alcohol use which are treatable if caught early, and are easily preventable. 

Head and neck cancers are more common in men and people over age 50; these cancers include cancer of the:

  • Oral Cavity – The most common type of head and neck cancer; this includes lips, tongue, gums, the lining of the cheeks and lips, bottom and top of the mouth, and behind the wisdom teeth
  • Salivary Glands – These produce saliva that keeps your mouth and throat moist; the main glands are on the bottom of the mouth at the jawline
  • Sinuses – The hollow spaces in the bones surrounding the nose
  • Nasal Cavity – The hollow area inside the nose
  • Tonsils
  • Throat (pharynx)
  • Voicebox (larynx)
  • Ears
  • Lymph nodes in the upper part of the neck

Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms

Head and neck cancer tends to be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are usually mild and mimic other non-serious issues such as a cold or sore throat. These symptoms include:

  • A mouth or tongue sore that will not heal
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth
  • A persistent sore throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Swelling of the neck, jawline, or side of the face
  • Frequent sinus infections that do not respond to antibiotics
  • Neck pain that does not get better
  • Frequent headaches
  • Pain in the upper teeth
  • Bleeding of the nose or mouth; or blood in saliva
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Persistent earaches
  • Trouble breathing or speaking

How to Check for Head and Neck Cancer at Home

Early detection and diagnosis are important for the successful treatment of head and neck cancers; when detected at stages I and II, the survival rate is over 80%. At more advanced stages, the survival rates are lower, the treatments are more invasive, and the side effects of treatments are much more significant. 

Below are steps you can take to look for abnormal, irregular, and discolored areas. You can compare one side to the other for symmetry; if you find something out of the norm, you should contact your doctor for further examination. Repeating these steps routinely can help you identify issues quicker because you will know your body. 

Step 1: Check the neck for lumps

Step 2: Look at your lips and cheeks

Step 3: Bite gently and look at your gums

Step 4: Open your mouth and look at the top, bottom, and side of your tongue, the back of your throat, the roof of your mouth, and under your tongue with a flashlight and mirror

How is Head and Neck Cancer Treated?

The first step to treatment is to figure out what stage the cancer is in. Stage I and II cancers are typically mild, easy to treat, and don’t spread from their original location. Stage III and IV cancers have typically spread to nearby lymph nodes and/or are large tumors. These cancers usually call for more complicated treatment, but for the most part, can be curable. However, large tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, called metastatic tumors, are generally considered incurable but may be treated to help reduce symptoms. The stage, along with your age, general health, and location of the tumor, will determine your treatment path. 

The three main courses of treatment for head and neck cancers are listed below:

Surgery –  Surgery can be used to remove the tumor and some healthy tissue surrounding it; lymph nodes may also be removed if cancer is suspected to have spread to them. Surgery on the head and neck areas may change the patient’s appearance and ability to talk, chew, and swallow. For these reasons, patients may need to go through some therapy to help with speech and swallowing. 

Radiation Therapy –  This is done using a machine near the body involving the use of high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy can have side effects such as sores or irritation of the treated area, difficulty in swallowing or tasting, loss of saliva, decreased appetite, and nausea. 

Chemotherapy –  Chemo is the use of anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body; this is more commonly used for advanced-stage head and neck cancer. Side effects include sores in the mouth, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, rash, tiredness, joint pain, and hair loss.

Immunotherapy –  This is a newly developing therapy option that uses drugs to block hormones that cause certain tumor cells to multiply. These treatments can make the tumor more sensitive to radiation and increase the chance of a cure. Immunotherapy helps your body produce cancer-fighting cells. 

Many new therapies focus on decreasing the severity of the side effects of treatment while maintaining good progress towards a cure. There have also been breakthroughs in new ways of combining surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to help cure head and neck cancers. With the advancement of technology, every day there seems to be new ideas and new helpful tools when going through cancer treatments. It is not an easy path to take, but your team of doctors are always looking for new ways to help patients through these cancer treatments and get back to normal daily activities and life. 

Prevention of Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancers are very preventable. Most of them occur due to lifestyle choices that negatively affect the body. Below are a few things one can do to help prevent head and neck cancer:

  1. Quit or do not use tobacco products. These products are the most common cause of head and neck cancer
  2. Cut back on drinking. Alcohol use has also been determined to contribute to the cause of head and neck cancer
  3. Consider the HPV Vaccine. Human Papillomavirus can cause some types of head and neck cancer. The vaccine is most effective if given at a young age