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Head and Neck Cancer: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What are cancers of the head and neck?

Cancers that are known collectively as head and neck cancers usually begin in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck (for example, inside the mouth, the nose, and the throat).

What are the symptoms and signs of head and neck cancers?

Patients with head and neck cancers often have symptoms or signs like lumps in the neck or jaw, persistent sore throat, hoarseness or changes in voice, red or white sores in the mouth, swelling in the head and neck, ear/jaw pain, blood in the saliva, fatigue, pain or difficulty swallowing, and numbness or weakness in the head and neck.  Sometimes people with head and neck cancer do not show any of these signs or symptoms or these symptoms may be unrelated to head and neck cancer.

What should you do if you think you may have a head and neck cancer?

Only a doctor can diagnose head and neck cancer. If you detect warning signs of head and neck cancer, contact your doctor immediately. When found early, most head and neck cancers can be treated with exceptional outcomes.

How common are head and neck cancers?

Head and neck cancers account for approximately 3 percent of all cancers in the United States. These cancers are nearly twice as common among men as they are among women. An estimated 45,780 new cases of cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx (throat) are expected in 2015.

How are head and neck cancers diagnosed?

A doctor evaluates a patient’s medical history, performs a physical exam, and orders diagnostic tests. The exams and tests may vary depending on the symptoms. Examination of a sample of tissue under a microscope (pathology) is always necessary to confirm a diagnosis of cancer.

What are the stages of head and neck cancer?

Staging is a way of telling where the cancer is located, if or where it has spread, and whether it is affecting other parts of the body. Knowing the stage helps the doctor to decide on a treatment plan and can help predict a patient’s prognosis.  Doctors use the TNM system for staging:

  (T) – How large is the Tumor? Where is it?
  (N) – Has the tumor spread to the lymph Nodes? If so, how many?
  (M) – Has the cancer Metastasized in other parts of the body? If so, where and how much?

How are head and neck cancers treated?

The treatment plan for each patient is personalized.  It depends on the exact location of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and the patient’s age and overall health. Treatment for head and neck cancer can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of some or all of these treatments.

National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute (2015)
American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts and Figures 2015
American Society of Clinical Oncology (2015)

Our team of researchers and physician scientists offer our head and neck cancer patients access to unique clinical trials available at Sanford Health.