Head & Neck Cancers Symptoms, Risks & Treatments | MedStar Health
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Cancers that start in the throat (oropharynx and hypopharynx), voice box (larynx), nasal cavity, salivary glands, or oral cavity (lip, mouth, and tongue) are referred to as head and neck cancers.

MedStar Health is one of the largest treatment centers for head and neck cancers in the area, with particular expertise in salivary gland tumors and cancer tied to the human papillomavirus (HPV). Our nationally recognized specialists work closely together, meeting in a multidisciplinary tumor board conference to discuss new cases and make the best recommendations.

Our head and neck specialists regularly treat complex diseases. When caught early, head and neck cancer is highly curable, often with surgery, radiation, or a combination of the two. With early medical treatment, patient outcomes are dramatically improved and disabilities are far less problematic. When larynx (voice box) cancer is treated in its earlier stages, cure rates are as high as 90 percent.

Working as a team, our cancer specialists provide a full range of therapies. They develop coordinated care plans based on your individual condition and needs — one that not only treats the cancer but also limits the impact on your appearance and your ability to swallow, breathe, eat, and talk.

When it comes to the latest tools and techniques to treat cancer, we adopt only those that deliver better care, results, and outcomes. We are proud to offer:

  • Minimally invasive surgeries, including robotic-assisted approaches which can potentially avoid the need for radiation treatment, and may improve swallowing outcomes
  • Gamma Knife and Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT), radiation treatments that can offer focused treatment while minimizing damage to surrounding tissue
  • Nerve monitoring, to protect key functions during surgery
  • Transoral Robotic Surgery (TORS)

Our head and neck cancer experts are focused on your quality of life. While treating cancer is our goal, we also work to limit the impact of therapy on your breathing, eating, swallowing, and talking. We do this by including speech and language therapists in our management to prevent problems when possible and plan for any potential rehabilitation right away. Nutritionists specializing in oncology can also assist with dietary needs during the treatment course to help you maintain strength during treatment.

Head and neck reconstruction surgeries, including the ability to rebuild the tongue, throat, or jaw and restore the voice after larynx surgery, are performed by our highly skilled and experienced oncology specialists.

Head and neck cancer symptoms

Symptoms of head and neck cancers may include:

  • Lump or a sore that does not heal
  • Sore throat that does not go away
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Change or hoarseness in the voice

Symptoms that may affect specific areas of the head and neck include the following:

Mouth Cancer

Non-healing ulcers, swelling, spasm of the jaw muscles and pain, including pain in one ear, a white or red patch on the gums, the tongue, or the lining of the mouth, a swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable, and unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.

Nose and Sinus Cancer

Discharge from the nose, persistent congestion, facial pain and double vision, sinuses that are blocked and do not clear, chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics, bleeding through the nose, frequent headaches, swelling or other trouble with the eyes, pain in the upper teeth, or problems with dentures.

Upper Throat and Soft Palate

Sore throat, jaw spasm, pain in the ear, spitting up blood and pain and difficulty swallowing (onset of symptoms may occur later in disease), trouble breathing or speaking, pain when swallowing, pain in the neck or the throat that does not go away, frequent headaches.

Voice Box

Coughing, hoarse voice, and difficulty breathing.

Salivary Gland

Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone, numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face, or pain in the face, the chin, or the neck that does not go away.

Head and neck cancer risks

Alcohol and tobacco use, including smokeless tobacco, are the top two risk factors for head and neck cancers. The majority of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use.

Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV-16, is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers, particularly oropharyngeal cancers that involve the tonsils or the base of the tongue.

Other risk factors for cancers of the head and neck include the following:

  • Paan (betel quid): Immigrants from Southeast Asia who use paan (betel quid) in the mouth should be aware that this habit has been strongly associated with an increased risk of oral cancer.
  • Maté: Consumption of maté, a tea-like beverage habitually consumed by South Americans, has been associated with an increased risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and larynx.
  • Occupational exposure: Wood and nickel dust, formaldehyde, asbestos, and synthetic fiber exposures have been associated with cancer of the larynx and sinuses, and some jobs in the construction, metal, textile, ceramic, logging, and food industries may have an increased risk of cancer of the larynx.
  • Radiation exposure: Radiation to the head and neck, for noncancerous conditions or cancer, is a risk factor for cancer of the salivary glands and thyroid.
  • Epstein-Barr virus infection: Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Ancestry: Individuals from Southeast Asia are at higher risk for developing nasopharyngeal cancer.

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