Each year, approximately 48,000 Americans are diagnosed with a head or neck cancer. These tumors account for up to 5 percent of all cancers in the U.S.
Most of us are familiar with knowing the warning signs of breast or skin cancers. But many of us may not be as well-educated on recognizing the signs and symptoms of cancers of the head and neck. They could be as innocent as a small lump below the jaw line that doesn’t go away or hoarseness to your voice you attribute to allergies.
Anytime something is different or out of the ordinary and isn’t going away should be looked at by a doctor. Cancers of the head and neck, if caught early, are quite treatable with a five-year survival rate of typically 70 to 90 percent. But, if the cancer is diagnosed at a more advanced state, the survival rate is not nearly as optimistic.
Who is at risk?
Cancers of the head and neck usually peak between the ages of 40 and 60. The primary causes include:
· Tobacco use in any form, chewing tobacco and smoking cigarettes
· High levels of alcohol consumption
· Combined tobacco and alcohol use which has a synergistic effect
· Poor oral health
· Exposure to occupational hazards such as wood dust
· Exposure to the human papilloma virus (HPV)
· Exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus which causes mononucleosis
Unfortunately, routine screening for cancers of the head and neck are not common with the exception of dentists who perform an examination of your mouth screening for oral cancers.
Warning signs of head and neck cancers
There are many signs of cancers of the head and neck that once noticed should be checked out as soon as possible by your physician if they have not gone away within two weeks or do not go away with other treatments such as antibiotics. The symptoms and signs include the following:
· Any lump or pain in the neck, mouth, or tongue
· Difficulty swallowing
· Hoarseness or a change of the voice that develops quickly over three to four weeks
· Ear pain
· Noticing a burning sensation when eating citrus fruits
· Any hearing loss, ringing in the ears (tinnitus) or nasal obstruction
· Painful or difficulty swallowing, earaches, bleeding when snoring
· Chronic cough, coughing up blood, or a rattle when breathing or difficulty when breathing
· Mouth, tongue or lip sores that don’t heal or that bleed easily
· Numbness in the chin or cheek
· Frequent nosebleeds
· Facial or head pain
· Double vision
· Dentures that no longer fit
Often a physician will refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist who will visually evaluate the area in question and most likely will want to do a biopsy. If cancer is found and depending on what type it is, treatment may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of these approaches.
Be alert to any symptoms of head and neck cancers – the sooner they are caught, the greater your chance of survival.