A brain tumor isn’t the only kind of cancer that can affect your head. In fact, there are several different forms of cancer that can occur in your head or neck. Understanding these types of head and neck cancer can help you better understand their risks, symptoms, and diagnosis. Head and neck cancers include those that form in the:
- Salivary glands – These glands are located in the floor of the mouth near the jawbone
- Oral cavity – Cancers can grow in or on the lips, tongue, gums, inner lining of the cheeks, and hard palate
- Pharynx – Also known as the throat, this hollow tube is about five inches long and cancer can affect any of its three main sections
- Larynx – This passageway below the pharynx is also called the voice box and includes the vocal cords and epiglottis — the small piece of tissue that prevents food from entering it
- Nasal cavity and sinuses – These hollow spaces are located inside and around the nose, respectively
Cancer can also affect the thyroid and parathyroid gland, as well as the lymph nodes within the neck (known as metastatic squamous neck cancer).
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Are You at Risk for Head and Neck Cancer?
Some head and neck cancer risk factors are unavoidable. For example, you are more likely to develop these types of cancer if you are of Asian ancestry or have been infected with Epstein-Barr or the human papilloma virus (HPV). Other risk factors aren’t set in stone. The following factors can increase your risk of head and neck cancer — but are also within your control.
- Alcohol and tobacco – Use of these two substances (including chewing tobacco) is the number one modifiable risk factor for many types of head and neck cancer.
- Certain foods – People who consume preserved or salted foods regularly during childhood are more likely to develop some forms of head cancer. Consumption of the tea-like beverage mate is also associated with higher risk.
- Poor oral hygiene. Missing teeth and otherwise poor oral health appear to be connected to oral cancer risk.
- Occupational exposure. People who work in jobs where they are regularly exposed to wood dust, asbestos, synthetic fibers, or formaldehyde may be at higher risk for some head and neck cancers. These include jobs in the construction, logging, textile, and metal industries.
- Radiation exposure. If you have received radiation to the head or neck, you may be at increased risk for cancer of the salivary glands.
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Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms
These head and neck cancer types can have symptoms such as:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Hoarse voice
- Sore throat
- Trouble breathing or speaking
- White or red patches on the gums or lining of the mouth
- Sinus or ear pain
Doctors use a variety of tests to diagnose head and neck cancer, including a physical examination, laboratory tests, and imaging tests. If you’ve been diagnosed with one of these conditions, your doctor can explain the head and neck cancer treatment options — including chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and immunotherapy — that are right for you.
The UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 60 locations throughout western Pennsylvania and Ohio, with more than 200 oncologists. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment.