Head and Neck Cancers

Tobacco use is the most preventable cause of head and neck cancer deaths.  Cancer of the head and neck is curable if caught early, and fortunately, most head and neck cancers produce early symptoms.  You should know the potential warning signs so you can alert your doctor.

Symptoms of head and neck cancer

  • Lump in the neck: cancers that begin in the head or neck usually spread to lymph nodes in the neck before they spread elsewhere.  A lump in the neck that lasts more than two weeks should be seen by a physician as soon as possible.  Not all lumps are cancer, but a lump in the neck can be the first sign of cancer.
  • Change in voice: most cancers in the larynx cause some changes in voice.  Any hoarseness or other voice change lasting more than two weeks should alert you to see your physician.  An otolaryngologist is a head and neck specialist who can examine your vocal cords easily and painlessly.
  • Growth in the mouth: most cancers of the mouth or tongue cause a sore or swelling that doesn’t go away.
  • Blood: tumors in the nose, mouth, throat, or lungs can cause bleeding.  If blood appears in your saliva or phlegm for more than a few days, you should see your physician.
  • Swallowing problems: cancer of the throat or esophagus may make swallowing solid foods difficult.
  • Skin changes: the most common head and neck cancer is basal cell cancer of the skin.  Fortunately, this is rarely a major problem if treated early.
  • Persistent earache: constant pain in or around the ear when you swallow can be a sign of infection or tumor growth in the throat.  This is particularly serious if it is associated with difficulty in swallowing, hoarseness or a lump in the neck.  These symptoms are best evaluated by an otolaryngologist.

What should you do?

All of the symptoms and signs described here can occur with no cancer present, but you can’t tell without an examination.  You should see a doctor if you have any of these signs and symptoms.  When found early, most cancers in the head and neck can be cured with relatively little difficulty.