Advanced Head and Neck Center of Kentuckiana

Just because you can’t feel it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Just ask the more than 30,000 Americans who were diagnosed with cancers of the head and neck last year. Unfortunately, many Americans do not recognize the symptoms of these life-threatening diseases, which include cancers of the oral cavity, larynx, and pharynx, and by the time they are diagnosed, for some, it’s too late.

Oral, head, and neck cancers claim approximately 8,000 lives per year, or about one life per hour. However, there is hope; if diagnosed early, these cancers can be more easily treated without significant complications, and the chances of survival greatly increase.

Who is Most At-Risk?

Tobacco and alcohol users traditionally have been considered the populations at greatest risk for these cancers. Kentucky leads the nation in the percentage of adults who smoke. According to the Centers for Disease Control 25.2% of Kentucky’s adult population (18 years and older) are current smokers. 85% of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use. However, oral cancer cases are on the rise in younger adults who do not smoke, and recent research indicates this development is due partly to the increase of the human papillomavirus (HPV) virus, a cancer-causing infection that can be transmitted by oral sex. HPV-related oral cancers are more difficult to detect because these cancers usually occur on the back of the tongue or on the tonsils, providing even more reason to get screened regularly.

Head and Neck Cancer Facts

Head and neck cancer is cancer that arises in the head or neck region, including the skin, nasal cavity, sinuses, lips, mouth, thyroid glands, salivary glands, throat, or larynx (voice box).

Signs and Symptoms

Most oral cancers arise on the lips, tongue, or the floor of the mouth. They also may occur inside your cheeks, on your gums, or the roof of your mouth.

Some signs and symptoms include:

  • A sore in your mouth that doesn’t heal or that increases in size
  • Persistent pain in your mouth
  • Lumps or white, red, or dark patches inside your mouth
  • Thickening of your cheek
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving your tongue
  • Difficulty moving your jaw, or swelling or pain in your jaw
  • Difficulty speaking or swallowing
  • Soreness in your throat or feeling that something is caught in your throat
  • Pain around your teeth, or loosening of your teeth
  • Numbness of your tongue or elsewhere in your mouth
  • Changes in your voice or hoarseness that last more than two weeks
  • Lump in your neck

Risk Factors

Tobacco (including smokeless tobacco) and alcohol use are the most important risk factors for oral, head, and neck cancers, particularly those of the tongue, mouth, throat, and voice box. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk for developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone. (Source: National Cancer Institute).

Anyone can develop thyroid cancers, although a family history or radiation exposure is often a factor. Salivary gland cancers do not seem to be associated with any particular cause.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Head, Neck, and Oral Cancer

Researchers have attributed a rise in oropharyngeal cancer – cancer of the tonsil or base of the tongue — among people who are normally at low risk to an increase in human papillomavirus (HPV)-related infections, which can be transmitted by oral sex. Writing in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers from the National Cancer Institute and the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions concluded that potentially HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers increased in the U.S. from 1973 to 2004, perhaps as a result of changing sexual behaviors. Today, 25 percent, or almost 10,000 cases each year, might be attributable to a strain of HPV.

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