Effects Of Head And Neck Cancer
Most people are not aware of head and neck cancers as often as other cancers, possibly because they comprise about three percent of all forms of the disease.
Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread.
According to estimate from National Cancer Institute in 2012 alone, more than 52,000 men and women were diagnosed with head and neck cancers in the United States.
What is Head And Neck Cancers
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Head and neck cancer is a group of cancers that starts in or near your throat, voice box, nose, sinuses, or mouth. Usually, it begins in the cells that line the surfaces of these body parts. Doctors call these squamous cells.
This type of cancer begins in the flat squamous cells that make up the thin layer of tissue on the surface of the structures in the head and neck. Directly beneath this lining, which is called the epithelium, some areas of the head and neck have a layer of moist tissue, called the mucosa. If a cancer is only found in the squamous layer of cells, it is called carcinoma in situ. If the cancer has grown beyond this cell layer and moved into the deeper tissue, then it is called invasive squamous cell carcinoma.
Realizing Risks Associated to Head and Neck Cancers
The two biggest risk factors for head and neck cancers is caused by to tobacco. This includes chewing tobacco and using snuff, not just smoking.
Secondhand smoke (smoke from other people’s cigarettes, cigars, or pipes) can also raise your risk of getting head and neck cancer.
Drinking too much alcohol raises your risk, too. If you use tobacco and drink too much alcohol, you raise your risk even more.
Other factors that can raise a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer include:
• Prolonged sun exposure.
This is especially linked to cancer in the lip area, as well as skin cancer of the head and neck.
• Human papillomavirus (HPV).
Research shows that infection with HPV is a risk factor for head and neck cancer. Sexual activity with a person who has HPV is the most common way someone gets HPV. specifically ones that involve the tonsils or base of the tongue. In fact, a large amount of oropharyngeal cancers, even reaching back 40 years, have actually been from HPV-positive tumors. Today in the United States, cancers caused by HPV infection are rising while cancers caused by smoking are falling.
There are different types of HPV, called strains. Research links some HPV strains more strongly with certain types of cancers. There are vaccines available to protect you from the HPV strains that cause head and neck cancer.
• Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
Exposure to EBV, which is more commonly known as the virus that causes mononucleosis or “mono,” plays a role in the development of nasopharyngeal cancer.
• Gender. Men are 2 to 3 times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer. However, the rate of head and neck cancer in women has been rising for several decades.
• Poor oral and dental hygiene. Poor care of the mouth and teeth has been suggested as a factor that may increase the risk of head and neck cancer.
• Environmental or occupational inhalants. Inhaling asbestos, wood dust, paint fumes, and certain chemicals may increase a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.
• Marijuana use. Research suggests that people who have used marijuana may be at higher risk for head and neck cancer.
• Poor nutrition. A diet low in vitamins A and B can raise a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.
• Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and laryngopharyngeal reflux disease (LPRD). Reflux of stomach acid into the upper airway and throat has been suggested as a factor associated with the development of head and neck cancer.
• Weakened immune system. A weakened immune system can raise a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.
Human papillomavirus virus (HPV) is also a big risk factor for some kinds of head and neck cancers.
Also check: Not Getting Enough Exercise Ups Your Cancer Risk
Warning signs of Head And Neck Cancers
When patients get screened for cancer, it’s usually because that individual felt pain in a certain area of the body. Unfortunately, there is little warning that someone may have a head or neck cancer, because often pain is not involved, which may lead to delay in care.
There are few telltale signs that it may be more than just an infection, like pain or numbness in the teeth, decreased sense of smell, difficulty opening the mouth, a lump or sore inside the nose that does not heal, or pain and swelling in the face. When these warning signs persist or worsen over several weeks, it’s time to schedule a detailed physical exam with a doctor.
Many of these symptoms can be caused by other noncancerous health conditions, but that’s why it’s so important to receive regular health and dental exams, especially if you routinely smoke or drink alcohol. It’s much easier to successfully treat sinus cancer when detected early.
If any abnormality is suspected, such as difficulty swallowing, persistent pain, a mass in the neck, changed or muffled voice and non-healing ulcers or sores, it is necessary to make an appointment with a dentist, oral surgeon, primary care physician, and when appropriate, an Ear-Nose-Throat (ENT)/head and neck specialist. We recommend routine checkups at least annually, but in addition to this, further evaluation is recommended with any worrisome or persistent findings.
Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers
The symptoms are a little bit different for each. Understanding their symptoms is the first step in prevention. Sometimes, people with head and neck cancer do not have any of these changes. Or, the cause of a symptom may be a different medical condition that is not cancer. Here are the main symptom everyone should be aware of:
- Swelling or a sore that does not heal.
- Red or white patch in the mouth
- Lump, bump, or mass in the head or neck area, with or without pain
- Persistent sore throat
- Foul mouth odor not explained by hygiene
- Hoarseness or change in voice
- Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion
- Frequent nose bleeds and/or unusual nasal discharge
- Difficulty breathing
- Double vision
- Numbness or weakness of a body part in the head and neck region
- Pain or difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaw or tongue
- Jaw pain
- Blood in the saliva or phlegm, which is mucus discharged into the mouth from respiratory passages
- Loosening of teeth
- Dentures that no longer fit
- Unexplained weight loss
- Ear pain or infection
Diagnosis of Head and Neck Cancers
During your yearly checkup, your doctor should look inside your mouth, nose, and throat. He should also check for lumps in your neck. This is especially true if you use tobacco or have used it in the past, or you drink regularly.
If you have symptoms of a head or neck cancer or your doctor finds anything strange at your yearly exam, you might have to get a few tests. These include:
- Blood tests
- Pee tests
- HPV test
- Endoscopy (a doctor looks at the inside of your head and neck with a tube that goes in through your nose and down your throat)
- Tissue sample (biopsy) and lab tests on the tumor if there is one
- ScansIf you have head or neck cancer, your doctor will try to figure out how far it has advanced, or what stage it is in. She’ll also see if it has spread to other parts of your body.
Avoiding Head and Neck cancers risks
Alcohol and tobacco use are two of the biggest risk factors for head and neck cancers. In fact, a huge majority of cancer patients formerly used, these substances. Oral, head and neck cancers tend to form in the areas where tobacco or alcohol has had the most contact. For example, where a cigarette sits on the lip, where the chewing tobacco is placed in the mouth, and other areas of inhalational contact.
The best way to prevent oral, head and neck cancer is to avoid these substances altogether, or to work with your doctor on figuring out how to quit.
A red or white patch in the mouth, a non-healing ulcer or a sore throat can also be the first signs of cancers of the mouth and throat. Hoarseness or a change in the voice can be the first sign of cancer of the voice box.
The bottom line is, when pain, swelling, soreness and other abnormalities persist over a reasonable period of time, which is usually no more than a few weeks to a month, it’s time to see a doctor. Earlier detection could mean detecting the cancer at an earlier stage. This, in turn, would pose a better prognosis, in general.
Treatment for Head and Neck Cancers
Many cancers of the head and neck can be cured, especially if they are found early. Although eliminating the cancer is the primary goal of treatment, preserving the function of the nearby nerves, organs, and tissues is also very important. When planning treatment, doctors consider how treatment might affect a person’s quality of life, such as how a person feels, looks, talks, eats, and breathes.
Most common treatment options for head and neck cancer are:
• The type and stage of head and neck cancer
• Possible side effects
• The patient’s preferences and overall health
• Where the cancer is located
• What stage the cancer is in
• How old you are
• Your general health
• If you have HPV
You might get just one kind of treatment, or you might get a combination of them. Options include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy.
Surgery. Your doctor might zap the cancer with a laser or take out the tumor and some of the healthy tissue around it. If there’s a chance the cancer has spread, your doctor might take out some of the small glands called lymph nodes in your neck.
The side effects and risks depend on what kind of surgery you get. They include:
• Losing your voice
• Hearing loss
• Trouble chewing or swallowing
• Swelling of the mouth or throat
If the surgery changes your face a lot, or it makes it hard to eat and breathe, you might need another surgery.
Radiation Your doctor might use X-rays or other energy particles to kill the cancer cells. Some of the side effects include:
• Pain or trouble swallowing
• Changes in your voice
• Loss of appetite
• Red or irritated skin
• Thick spit
• Feeling sick to your stomach
• Being tired
• Sore throat
• Sores in your mouth
Chemotherapy (“Chemo”). You’ll be given medication to stop the cancer cells from growing and dividing, which should destroy them. The following are possible side effects:
• Feeling tired
• Feeling sick to your stomach
• Hair loss
• Loss of appetite
You’ll be given medications that work on the genes, proteins, and other parts of the cancer cells. Side effects of target therapy depend on the medication that is used. But often, they include problems with your skin, hair, nails, or eyes.
Your care plan may also include treatment for symptoms and side effects, an important part of cancer care. Take time to learn about all of your treatment options and be sure to ask questions about things that are unclear. Talk with your doctor about the goals of each treatment and what you can expect while receiving the treatment.
Additional Resource For Head and Neck Cancers