News & Information

About Cancer

Head and Neck Cancer

What are Head and Neck Cancers?
Head and neck cancers encompass a wide range of tumors that develop in several areas of the head and neck region, including the nasal passages, sinuses, mouth, throat, larynx, swallowing passages, salivary glands and the thyroid gland. Skin cancers that develop on the scalp, face or neck may also be viewed as head and neck cancers.

Risk Factors
Anything that may increase your chance of developing a disease is called a risk factor. Although these factors may put you at greater risk, it does not mean that they necessarily cause the disease. Primary risk factors include:

  • Tobacco use - including smoking and smokeless (chewing) tobacco
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Exposure to the sun
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Occupational exposure to wood or nickel dust
  • Poor oral hygiene

Common Symptoms
Below are some of the symptoms and warning signs of head and neck cancers. Common symptoms of head and neck cancers vary based on the position of the cancer but can include any of the following:

  • A lump or sore that does not heal
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A change in the voice or hoarseness
  • Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone
  • Pain in the ear or face or when swallowing

Screening and Diagnosis
Trinitas physicians perform any of the following tests that can help to make a definitive diagnosis of a head and neck cancer and to determine the progression of the cancer:

  • Physical examination
  • Endoscopy
  • Laboratory tests
  • X-rays
  • Computed tomography (CT scan)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Biopsy

Common Treatment Options
Many cancers of the head and neck are treatable, especially if they are found early. Treatment varies according to the type, severity and size of the tumor, as well as personal preferences and prognosis. The goal of treatment is to keep healthy tissue while destroying tumors at their point of origin, as well as destroying any cancer cells that have spread throughout the body.

Surgery
Surgery is often the first treatment option for most cancers of the head and neck. Surgery may be used to extract the cancerous tissue while sparing as much healthy tissue as possible. If the cancer has spread, the surgeon may also remove some of the lymph nodes in the neck. It is important that patients discuss their personal situation with the surgeon prior to undergoing surgery so they understand what will need to be removed and what side effects may result.

Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy is a non-surgical method of treatment of cancer and other diseases using penetrating beams of high-energy waves called x-rays or gamma rays. Radiation disables or destroys tumor cells by damaging their genetic material to stop the cancer cells from growing. The two types of radiation therapy are:

  • External-beam radiation therapy
    Specialized medical equipment is used to deliver radiation to the tumor site from outside the body.
  • Internal radiation therapy (also called Brachytherapy)
    Also known as implant radiation, radioactive material is placed in the body near the cancer cells.

The type of radiation therapy given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by destroying the cells or by stopping the division of cells. Chemotherapy is often used to strengthen the response of cancer cells to radiation therapy, and often makes it possible to preserve organs such as the larynx. Chemotherapy drugs can be taken orally or by injection. The way it is taken depends on the type and stage of the cancer and the drug protocol the doctor has prescribed.