Head and Neck Cancer: What You Need to Know | OSF HealthCare
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May 2022

Head and Neck Cancer: What You Need to Know

Most of us are aware of the deadly potential of lung or breast cancer, but another cancer that causes serious problems often gets little attention. While uncommon, cancers of the head and neck can affect some of our most important functions—eating, speaking, and breathing.

Understand the risks

Head and neck cancers usually begin in the mucous membranes of the mouth, throat, and voice box. They can also develop in the sinuses and nose, on the lips, in the salivary glands, and in the muscles or nerves of the head and neck.

These cancers account for about 4% of all cancers in the U.S. Health experts estimate that about 68,000 Americans will develop head and neck cancer this year.

Currently, men are twice as likely as women to develop head and neck cancers. These cancers are most often linked to tobacco use—80% of patients have a history of smoking. People who drink alcohol and use tobacco face even higher risk.

Watch for warning signs

Head and neck cancers are frequently diagnosed late, making them more difficult to treat and cure. Finding the disease early significantly improves chances of beating it.

Symptoms include a lump or sore in the neck, throat, or mouth that doesn’t heal; persistent sore throat; difficulty swallowing; and a change or hoarseness in the voice.

Other signs include:

  • Chronic sinus infections or nosebleeds

  • Unusual bleeding or red or white patches in the mouth

  • Swelling in the jaw or under the chin

  • Ear pain or ringing

  • Trouble breathing, speaking, or hearing

Seek treatment

How healthcare providers treat the disease depends on where the cancer started, how long it has been there, and the person’s health and age. Surgery to remove the cancer, and chemotherapy and radiation therapy to kill cancer cells, may be used separately or in combination.

Online Medical Reviewer: Brian McDonough, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Ray Turley, MSN, BSN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2022
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