Head and Neck Cancer

Did you know?

  • 55,000 Americans will develop cancer of the head and neck this year
  • 13,000 of them will die

Tobacco is the more preventable cause of these deaths. Up to 200,000 people in the United States die each year from smoking-related illnesses. This figure has decreased due to the growing number of Americans who have quit smoking. Some smokers have simply switched to smokeless or spit tobacco, assuming it is a safe alternative. They are simply changing the location of their cancer risk from the lungs to the mouth.

Cancer of the head and neck is curable if caught early. You should know the warning signs so that you can alert your doctor to your symptoms as soon as possible.


What to Watch For

A Lump in the Neck

Cancers that begin in the head or neck usually spread first to the lymph nodes in the neck. A lump that lasts longer than two weeks should be checked by a physician. Of course, not all lumps are cancer. But a lump in the neck can be the first sign of cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box, thyroid gland, or of lymphomas or blood cancers. They are usually painless and continue to steadily grow.



Change in the Voice

Most cancers in the voice box cause some change in the voice. Any change or hoarseness that lasts more than two weeks should give cause to see your physician. Your otolaryngologist can check your vocal chords painlessly and easily. Most voice changes are not caused by cancer, but don’t take any chances. If you are hoarse more than two weeks, see your doctor.


A Growth in the Mouth

Most cancers of the mouth or tongue will cause a sore or swelling that doesn’t go away. These sores may be painless unless they become infected, and bleeding may occur late in the disease. If an ulcer or swelling is accompanied by a lump in the neck, be very concerned. Your dentist or doctor can determine if a biopsy (tissue sample test) is needed and will refer you to a head and neck surgeon for this procedure.

Swallowing Problems

If you have trouble swallowing almost every time you try to swallow something, you should be examined by a doctor. Cancer of the throat or esophagus (swallowing tube) may make swallowing solid foods, or even liquids, difficult. Food may “stick” at a certain point and then either go through to the stomach or come back up. A barium swallow x-ray or an examination of the swallowing tube with a telescope will be performed to find the cause.

Changes in the Skin


Basal cell cancer of the skin is the most common head and neck cancer. When treated early this is rarely a major problem. These cancers can occur almost anywhere on the skin, but are most common on sun-exposed areas such as the forehead, face and ears.

Basal cell cancer often begins as a small, pale patch that slowly grows, producing a “dimple,” and eventually an ulcer. Parts of the ulcer may heal, but the major part remains ulcerated.




Other Types of Cancer

Other types of cancer, including squamous cell cancer and malignant melanoma, also occur on the skin of the head and neck. Most squamous cell cancers occur on the lower lip and ear, and if caught early and treated properly are not much more dangerous than basal cell cancers.

Malignant melanoma produces dense blue-black or black discolorations of the skin. A mole that changes size, color or begins to bleed may signal trouble. Any black or blue-black spot on the face or neck, especially if it changes size or shape, should be seen as soon as possible by a dermatologist or other physician.



Persistent Earache

Constant pain in or around the ear when you swallow can be a sign of infection or tumor growth in the throat. If this is associated with difficulty in swallowing, hoarseness or a lump in the neck, it can be especially serious. These symptoms should be evaluated by an otolaryngologist.