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Oral and Head and Neck Cancer

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Updated September 08, 2013

Approximately 40,000 new cases of oral, head, and neck cancer(OHNC) were diagnosed in 2003. It's estimated that 85% of them were due to tobacco use and heavy alcohol consumption. The five year survival rate for OHNC is 56%, and this rate has remained constant over several decades. This is due in part to the public's lack of general knowledge about head and neck cancer.

Read through the information below, gathered from the National Cancer Institute. Educate and protect yourself! Early detection can make a big difference in recovery.

Skip to OHNC Symptoms

What kinds of cancers are considered cancers of the head and neck?

Most head and neck cancers begin in the squamous cells that line the structures found in the head and neck. Because of this, head and neck cancers are often referred to as squamous cell carcinomas. Some head and neck cancers begin in other types of cells. For example, cancers that begin in glandular cells are called adenocarcinomas.

Cancers of the head and neck are further identified by the area in which they begin:

Oral cavity - The oral cavity includes the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums(gingiva), the lining inside the cheeks and lips (buccal mucosa), the bottom (floor) of the mouth under the tongue, the bony top of the mouth (hard palate), and the small area behind the wisdom teeth.

Salivary glands - The salivary glands are in several places: under the tongue, in front of the ears, and under the jawbone, as well as in other parts of the upper digestive tract.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity - The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose. The nasal cavity is the hollow space inside the nose.

Pharynx - The pharynx is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus (the tube that goes to the stomach) and the trachea (the tube that goes to the lungs). The pharynx has three parts:
  • Nasopharynx - The nasopharynx, the upper part of the pharynx, is behind the nose.
  • Oropharynx - The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx. The oropharynx includes the soft palate (the back of the mouth), the base of the tongue, and the tonsils.
  • Hypopharynx - The hypopharynx is the lower part of the pharynx.
Larynx - The larynx, also called the voicebox, is a short passageway formed by cartilage just below the pharynx in the neck. The larynx contains the vocal cords. It also has a small piece of tissue, called the epiglottis, which moves to cover the larynx to prevent food from entering the air passages.

Lymph nodes - in the upper part of the neck - Sometimes, squamous cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes of the upper neck when there is no evidence of cancer in other parts of the head and neck. When this happens, the cancer is called metastatic squamous neck cancer with unseen (occult) primary.

Cancers of the brain, eye, and thyroid usually are not included in the category of head and neck cancers. Cancers of the scalp, skin, muscles, and bones of the head and neck are also usually not considered cancers of the head and neck.

How common are head and neck cancers?

Head and neck cancers account for 3% of all cancers in the United States. These cancers are more common in men and in people over age 50. Approximately 40,000 new cases of oral and head and neck cancer were diagnosed in 2003.

What causes head and neck cancers?

Tobacco (including smokeless tobacco) and alcohol use are the most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, particularly those of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx. Eighty-five percent of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk for developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.

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

Oral cavity:
  • Sun exposure(lip)
  • Human papillomavirus(HPV) infection
Salivary glands:
  • Radiation to the head and neck.
This exposure can be from diagnostic x-rays or from radiation therapy for noncancerous conditions or cancer.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity
  • Certain industrial exposures, such as wood or nickel dust inhalation.
Tobacco and alcohol use may play less of a role in this type of cancer.

Nasopharynx
  • Asian, particularly Chinese, ancestry
  • Epstein-Barr virus infection
  • Occupational exposure to wood dust
  • Consumption of certain preservatives or salted foods.
Oropharynx
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Mechanical irritation such as from poorly fitting dentures
  • Use of mouthwash that has a high alcohol content.
Hypopharynx
  • Plummer-Vinson (also called Paterson-Kelly) syndrome, a rare disorder that results from nutritional deficiencies. This syndrome is characterized by severe anemia and leads to difficulty swallowing due to webs of tissue that grow across the upper part of the esophagus.
Larynx
  • Exposure to airborne particles of asbestos, especially in the workplace.
People who are at risk for head and neck cancers should talk with their doctor about ways they can reduce their risk. They should also talk about how often to have checkups.

What are common symptoms of head and neck cancer?

Symptoms that are common to several head and neck cancer sites include:
  • A lump or sore that does not heal
  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A change or hoarseness in the voice
Other symptoms may include the following:

Oral cavity
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth
  • A swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth
Nasal cavity and sinuses
  • 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
  • Problems with dentures
Salivary glands
  • Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone
  • Numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face
  • Pain that does not go away in the face, chin, or neck
Oropharynx and hypopharynx
  • Ear pain
Nasopharynx
  • Trouble breathing or speaking
  • Frequent headaches
  • Pain or ringing in the ears
  • Trouble hearing
Larynx
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Ear pain
Metastatic squamous neck cancer
  • Pain in the neck or throat that does not go away
What can people who have had head and neck cancer do to reduce the risk of developing a second primary (new) cancer?

People who have been treated for head and neck cancer have an increased chance of developing a new cancer, usually in the head and neck, esophagus, or lungs. The chance of a second primary cancer varies depending on the original diagnosis, but is higher for people who smoke. Patients who do not smoke should never start. Those who smoke should do their best to quit. Studies have shown that continuing to smoke increases the chance of a second primary cancer for up to 20 years after the original diagnosis.

How much do Americans know about OHNC?

Source: National Cancer Institute
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