Understanding head and neck cancer

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 118,050 new cases of cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, throat and thyroid this year. These cancers, also referred to as head and neck cancer, make up for 3 percent to 5 percent of all cancers in the United States.

Head and neck cancer encompasses various different cancerous tumors that can develop in or around the throat, voice box, nose, sinuses and mouth. While there are many different types of head and neck cancer there are five main types identified and named according to the part of body where they begin. These five main types of cancers include: laryngeal and hypopharyngeal (the voice box and gullet), nasal cavity and paranasal sinus (space behind the nose where air passes on the way to the throat), nasopharyngeal (air passageway at the upper part of the throat), oral and oropharyngeal (mouth and tongue and middle of the throat) and salivary gland (tissue that produces saliva).

Every year head and neck cancer accounts for approximately 13,000 lives. Last year in the United States alone 100,000 people were diagnosed and a recent survey indicated few Americans were even aware of their symptoms. Knowing the symptoms of head and neck cancer and being aware of them is essential. Early detection greatly increases the chance of survival and can lead to the cancer being more easily treated without major complications.

What are potential warning signs of oral cancer?

Most signs and symptoms of oral cancer occur on the lips, tongue or the floor of the mouth. They can also be seen on your checks, gums or the roof of your mouth. Oral cancers associated with HPV are many times found in the tonsil or base of the tongue. Other signs and symptoms include:

A red or white spot in your mouth that doesn’t heal or that increases in size,

Sore throat or swollen tonsil,

Changes in your voice,

A lump in your neck,

Earache and

Difficulty swallowing.

Who should get screened?

It is recommended that every adult gets tested. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while individuals with no known risk factors sometimes end up developing the disease. Risk factors, however, do increase the chance of a person developing cancer. Two risk factors that significantly increase the risk of head and neck cancer are:

Tobacco use – Eighty-five percent of head and neck cancer is linked to tobacco use. Whether it be smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes; chewing tobacco; and using snuff are the single largest risk factors. Frequent and heavy use of alcohol may also increase the risk of developing cancer.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) – Research shows that individuals who are infected with the virus are at a higher risk for head and neck cancer. HPV is most commonly transmitted from person to person during sexual activity.

Why should you get screened?

Just because you don’t have signs or symptoms, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Plus, the test is free, painless and only takes 10 minutes. And most importantly, it could save your life.

UnityPoint Health-Trinity Cancer Center in partnership with Iowa Central Community College is offering a free screening at Iowa Central Community College Dental School (One Triton Circle) April 10 from 3 to 7 p.m. The screening will be performed by area medical providers, who are donating their time for this important cancer prevention opportunity. For more information, please call Trinity Cancer Center at 574-6183.

(Statistics adopted from the American Cancer Society’s publication, Cancer Facts & Figures 2014.)

Dr. F.E. Gonzales, M.D., FACS, specializes in Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) – Otolaryngology. He is affiliated with UnityPoint Health-Trinity Regional Medical Center.