Understanding the symptoms and treatment of head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer refers to a group of cancers that generally occur in the squamous cells. These cells line the mucosal, moist surfaces inside your neck and head. Cancer of the squamous cells is also known as squamous cell carcinoma. Cancers of the head and neck can also first occur in the salivary glands, even though it is rather uncommon. Head and neck cancers account for 4% of all cancers in the country.

There are many different types of cells in the glands that can be affected by the cancerous cells. Depending on the area where it begins, cancers of the head and neck are categorized further.

Areas of head and neck cancer
There are five main regions where head and neck cancer can first occur. They are:

  • Oral cavity
    The oral cavity consists of different areas, all of which can be affected by cancer. These areas are the lips, the gums, the front of your tongue, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, the bottom of your mouth, the bony top of your mouth, and the tiny area behind your wisdom teeth.
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses
    The nasal cavity is the area in your nose, while the paranasal sinuses refer to the hollow spaces within the bones that surround your nose.
  • Pharynx
    It is the area of the throat that begins behind your nose and goes up to your esophagus. It is a five-inch long tube that can be divided into three parts: nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx.
  • Salivary glands
    As the name suggests, these glands are responsible for creating the saliva. These are situated on the floor of your mouth.
  • Larynx
    This is your voice box. It is situated in your neck, under the pharynx. It is made of cartilage and contains your vocal cords. The larynx is protected by the epiglottis, a tissue that makes sure food cannot enter your air passage.

Symptoms of head and neck cancers
There are many different kinds of head and neck cancer symptoms, such as a persistent sore throat, lump, voice hoarseness, and more. Even though these can be caused by other noncancerous reasons too, if the symptoms do not seem to go away soon, you should consult with a certified doctor.

The symptoms also depend on the location of cancer, such as:

  • Oral cavity
    Cancer may form a red or white patch on the tongue, gums, and mouth lining. It may also result in a swollen jaw or sudden pain and bleeding from your mouth.
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses
    The symptoms include blocked sinuses, chronic sinus infections that persist even after treatment, nose bleeds, frequent headaches, trouble with your eyes, and pain in your upper teeth.
  • Pharynx
    If cancer attacks the pharynx, it will become difficult to speak or breathe. It may also result in hearing difficulties, ear ringing, headaches, neck or throat pain, and pain when you are swallowing.
  • Salivary glands
    When cancer attacks the salivary glands, the areas around your jawbone or under your chin swell up, the facial muscles may become numb or even paralyzed, and your face or neck may hurt.
  • Larynx
    You may experience pain in your ears and pain when you are trying to swallow.

How are such cancers diagnosed?
If the symptoms of the head and neck cancer become apparent, you should visit a specialist immediately. The doctor will check your medical history and order certain tests to determine the cause of the symptoms. The tests may vary depending on the symptoms you have, but a testing of a tissue sample is mandatory to confirm if you have cancer.

If the test reveals that it is in fact cancer, the doctor will order more tests to determine if cancer has spread to other areas. Knowing the stage of the cancer is important to decide the right course of action. To know the stage, different tests are performed, including imaging of the targeted area, X-rays, examination under anesthesia, and varied lab tests.

Treatment for head and neck cancer
The treatment for head and neck cancers depend on different factors, like the overall health of the patient, the stage of cancer, and the location that is affected, among others. There are different kinds of treatment options available, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted therapy. A combination of some of these treatment options is often used too.

HPV-positive and negative oropharyngeal cancer patients are treated differently than patients who are HPV-negative. Recent studies have shown that prognosis is better for patients who have been diagnosed with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer. They may even respond to less aggressive treatments.

Before head and neck cancer treatment can begin, doctors generally caution patients about the effects of the treatments. The way they look, breathe, eat, and talk may alter due to the treatment.

Side effects of head and neck cancer treatment
The treatment for head and neck cancer has different side effects. For example, after the lymph node surgery, the patient may look different and their ways of chewing, swallowing, and talking may change too. Radiation treatment may cause mouth irritation, redness, and soreness. The saliva may become thicker or the mouth can become dry. It may become difficult to swallow food and your sense of taste may change as well. You can gather more information regarding this from your doctor.

Reducing the risk of head and neck cancer
The risk of head and neck cancer is higher in people who are regular consumers of tobacco. They must ask their doctor about ways to lower their chances of developing cancer in their neck and head. It is highly suggested that you try quitting the tobacco as that will significantly reduce the chance of developing cancer. You must opt for regular checkups, so cancer can be caught as early as possible.

Other than that, you may also find information regarding clinical trials where different medicines and treatments are tested on patients who run a high risk of developing cancer. You can check out the National Cancer Institute’s helpful list of clinical trials for cancer in our country as well as Canada.

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