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Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month

By Doug Clark, MD April 09, 2021 Posted in: Cancer Care

April is Head and Neck Cancer month and although the head and neck region may appear small compared to the rest of the body, it represents one of the most complex parts of the human anatomy.

What Are Head and Neck Cancers?

Cancers that occur in this region typically derive from the squamous cells that line the mucosal surfaces inside the mouth, nose, throat, and occasionally the salivary glands. Some tumors, however, such as those occurring in the salivary glands may form from adenomatous or other secretory cells. Cancers deriving from squamous cells are referred to as squamous cell carcinomas and those deriving from adenomatous cells are called adenocarcinomas. According to the National Cancer Institute, head and neck cancers account for nearly four percent of all cancers reported annually in the United States.

Risk Factors For These Cancers

Alcohol and tobacco product use is a major risk factor for many types of head and neck cancers as is infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus. Other risk factors for head and neck cancers include:

  • Eating certain preserved or salted foods
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Poor nutrition
  • Prolonged sun or radiation exposure
  • Occupational exposure to wood dust, asbestos, paint fumes, and synthetic fibers
  • Marijuana use
  • Diets low in vitamins A and B
  • History of gastroesophageal reflux
  • A weakened immune system
  • Prior history of Epstein - Barr virus exposure
  • Being of Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese ancestry

Additionally, head and neck cancers occur more commonly in men than women, and in people over the age of 40 as opposed to those younger.

What are Common Symptoms?

Common symptoms of head and neck cancers may include a neck lump that does not go away, a sore in the mouth or throat that does not heal, difficulty with swallowing, or a change in voice or hoarseness.

Other symptoms that may reflect the presence of head and neck cancers can include pain or difficulty moving the jaw or tongue, loosening of teeth or dentures that no longer fit properly, unexplained weight loss or fatigue.  Keep in mind that all of these symptoms can be caused by other health issues and it is important that you see your primary care physician to have such symptoms evaluated should they persist.

Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosis

Cancers of the head and neck region are staged on the basis of their size, local extent, and whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body such as the lungs. A diagnosis of head and neck cancer is usually accomplished by an ear, nose, and throat specialist (also known as an otolaryngologist), by performing a biopsy of the suspicious area.

Once a diagnosis of cancer is made, patients then undergo various staging studies to determine the cancer’s extent.  "Staging," as the process is termed, may involve various types of x-rays, CT scans, or other diagnostic tests.

Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

Once the extent of your cancer is known, preparation for treatment begins. The treatment of head and neck cancers is highly complex and individualized.  It might consist of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of one or more of these modalities. In general, the specific type of surgery a patient undergoes is highly dependent on the type of cancer being treated. Chemotherapy tends to be more commonly used in advanced head and cancer cases.  Radiation, for the most part, is directed at the cancer site of origin and to the lymph node regions to which the cancer is most likely to spread.  Radiation treatment most commonly is given daily over a period of seven weeks.

A host of pre-treatment preparations may be advised by your team of cancer physicians and are typically intended to help you successfully complete your treatments while also reducing any associated side effects. The treatments for head and neck cancers can be quite challenging, but keep in mind, you have a dedicated team of doctors, nurses, dietitians, and other team members that are there to help you reach your goal.

For more information, or to reach out to a provider, visit

Doug Clark, MD
Doug Clark, MD

Doug Clark, MD is a Radiation Oncologist with CHI Health.

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