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Head and Neck Cancer

Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Head and neck cancer is an umbrella term that refers to mouth, nose and throat cancer and cancers of the sinus, the salivary glands or the lymph nodes of the neck.

90% of head and neck cancer sets on in mucosal soft surfaces, hence the other less known name is squamous cell carcinoma. In an estimated 85% of the cases head and neck cancer is directly related to heavy smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, but human papillomavrus is also among the leading causes of these types of cancers. Head and neck cancer accounts for about 3-5% of all cancers diagnosed and they are much more common in men than in women. 

Head and neck cancer regions can be:

  • salivary glands
  • nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses
  • larynx
  • pharynx
  • oral cavity

What is traditionally not considered head and neck cancer are:

  • brain cancer
  • eye cancer
  • scalp cancer
  • cancer of bones in the head and the neck
  • cancer of the thyroid glands
  • cancer of the esophagus

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer

Salivary glands – consistent pain in the face and neck, painful swelling around the jawbone, numbness of facial muscles

Nasal cavity and sinuses – bleeding nose, constantly blocked nose and sinuses, headache, pain in the eye and the upper teeth. 

Larynx – painful swallowing and ear problems.

Pharynx – speaking and breathing difficulties, sore throat, changed voice, hearing problems, headaches. 

Oral cavity – lumps or patches on the inner lining of the month, gums or tongue, bleeding or pain in the oral cavity, swelling of the jaws.


After the obvious physical examinations, a variety of diagnostic test and surgical means help the doctor identify the type of cancer, the exact location and the stage of the illness. First a biopsy and blood sample is taken from the affected area to look for signs of cancerous cells. When it comes to staging, various imaging techniques   and sometimes a surgical opening of the area assist the physician to specify the extension of head and neck cancer. 

In case of oropharyngeal cancer a human papillomavirus test is taken, and in positive cases a completely different and somewhat milder treatment plan is made. 

Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

Head and neck cancer treatment options do not vary from other cancer management techniques. With a well-thought therapy patients’ life quality and and survival rates can significantly be increased. Depending on the location and the stage of the cancer treatment can involve 

  • Chemotherapy – its and orally or intravenously given drug therapy whose main purpose is to prevent metastasis by creating s hostile environment for cancerous cells.
  • Radiotherapy – the most common form of radiotherapy is intensity-modulated radiation therapy that uses high-energy photons.
  • Highly targeted radiation beams (cyberknife technology)
  • Targeted therapy – the use of certain substances to detect and destroy cancer cells and leave intact healthy cells
  • Head and neck cancer surgery

Many times a combination of these is used to fight cancerous cells. When the illness is diagnosed in an early, non-extended stage, the tumor and the lymph nodes can be fully or partially removed by head and neck cancer surgery, but as always, patients need to take certain risks, such as:

  • Impaired ability to speak, breath and swallow
  • Changed facial features
  • Damaged nerves, stiffened muscles

A promising technique called Transoral Laser Microsurgery makes it possible to remove tumor bits from the voice box to avoid dangerous incisions and maintain the ability to speak and swallow.