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Head and neck cancer

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The head and neck have some of our body’s most vital organs, which can be prone to tumors and cancer. Tumors are cancerous or noncancerous growths that form when too many cells grow. 

Head and neck cancer can be in the larynx, throat, lips, mouth, nose and salivary glands. Many can be cured if caught and treated early.

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FAQs

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  • When too many cancer cells grow in the head and neck areas, a cancerous tumor can form.

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  • Most head and neck cancers have early warning signs. Get to know them so you can tell your doctor about them as soon as possible. 

    Those signs and symptoms include:

    • A lump in the neck
    • Pain in the neck or throat
    • Change in the voice
    • A growth in the mouth
    • Pain when swallowing
    • Coughing up blood
    • Swallowing problems
    • Trouble breathing or speaking
    • Changes in the skin
    • Constant earache
    • Unusual bleeding
    • Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone
    • Numbness or paralysis of the face muscles
    • Pain in the face, chin or neck that doesn’t go away

    These symptoms can happen for other reasons besides cancer. If you have symptoms like those listed above, you should talk to your provider to find out the reason. 

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  • There are many ways your doctor may find head and neck cancer. Your doctor might do one or more of the following:

    • A physical exam
    • Ask about your family medical history as well as yours
    • An imaging test, like an X-ray, MRI, CT scan or PET scan  
    • A biopsy (taking a sample of tissue from your body and testing it)
    • Lab tests and other screening tests, such as a blood test
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  • Head and neck cancers account for about 4% of all cancers in the United States. 

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  • These cancers are more than twice as common among men verses women. They are also more common among those over age 50. 

    Head and neck cancer can also happen due to:

    • Too much alcohol and tobacco use, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco or snuff
    • If you have had human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus or type of infection connected to cancers of the tonsils, tongue and other mouth areas  
    • If you have been in the sun too much, this is especially true of lip cancer 
    • If you have been around radiation too much, this is especially true of salivary gland cancer 
    • If you are of Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese, you have a greater chance of cancer of the nasopharynx, located behind the nose and above the throat  
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  • If you have greater chances of getting head and neck cancer, you should talk to your doctor about how to lower your chances. You should also talk to your doctor about how often you should get checkups.  

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  • How we care for head and neck cancers depends on many factors: 

    • Type of cancer
    • Size of the cancer
    • Where the cancer is located in the body 
    • Stage of cancer 

    Your doctor will work with you to find the right care plan for you. Some examples of treatment include:

    • Surgery to remove cancer 
    • Chemotherapy (using medication to make the cancer smaller or to kill cancer cells) 
    • Radiation (using X-rays to kill cancer cells)
    • Cryosurgery (using cold temperatures to freeze or kill cancer cells) 
    • Targeted therapy (using drugs to stop cancer cells from growing and spreading)
    • Immunotherapy (using the body’s immune system that naturally fights illness)
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