Head & Neck Cancers

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Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Risk Factors

Many head and neck cancers produce early symptoms, and can be cured if treated promptly.

  • A lump in the neck that lasts more than two weeks
  • A sore in the mouth that won't heal, or a red or white patch in the mouth
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • A change in the voice, such as hoarseness
  • Problems swallowing or chewing
  • A numb tongue
  • An ongoing earache
  • Changes in a mole, or other signs of skin cancer.


People who smoke or drink alcoholic beverages heavily should be examined for head and neck cancer at least once a year. This is a simple 10-minute procedure that includes looking in the nose, mouth and throat; examining the skin in the head and neck region; and feeling for lumps in the neck.

If cancer is suspected, your doctor may use mirrors and a lighted tube, called an endoscope, to examine hard-to-see areas. The tube may be inserted through the nose or throat. Either an anesthetic spray or general anesthesia is used to make the examination more comfortable. These examinations are called a nasopharyngoscopy, a pharyngoscopy or a laryngoscopy, depending on which area is examined.

Your doctor may also suggest other tests, including a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI), a computed tomography scan (CT) or an ultrasound exam. A positron emission tomography (PET) scan also is used to diagnosis head and neck cancers.

Other possible tests include: a barium swallow, dental X-rays, chest X-rays and a radionuclide bone scan. If a suspicious area is found, a doctor may do a biopsy in which a piece of tissue is removed with either a scalpel or a needle and then examined in the lab under a microscope for signs of cancer.

Risk Factors

More than 90 percent of squamous head and neck cancers are thought to be related to tobacco use, including cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco. Other risk factors include:

  • Alcohol--especially beer and hard liquor
  • HPV infection
  • Prolonged sun exposure
  • A diet lacking in vegetables, fruits, and fiber
  • Age 40 or older
  • Exposure to asbestos and wood dust
  • Heartburn
  • A weakened immune system
  • Prior radiation therapy to the head and neck area.

Some studies suggest that the human papillomavirus (HPV) may increase the risk of some of these cancers. Studies have shown that many head and neck cancer patients who continue to smoke will develop a second cancer.