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Head and neck cancer

Acid Reflux

Head and neck cancer is a broad term for a relatively rare form of cancer (9th most common in UK) that affects numerous parts of the head and neck.

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer can include cancer of the:

  • Mouth (including the lining of the cheeks, roof of the mouth, floor of the mouth, lips, gums and tongue)
  • Pharynx (throat)
  • Larynx (voice box)
  • Nasopharynx (area to the back of the nose)
  • Nose
  • Sinuses
  • Salivary glands
  • Thyroid
  • Skin

Although there are other cancers that affect the head and neck area (e.g. brain or oesophageal), they are not generally referred to as head and neck cancer.

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

The symptoms of head and neck cancer will depend upon the site of the cancer that you have.

Mouth cancer symptoms include:

  • Lumps in the mouth or lymph glands in the neck
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Unilateral ear ache

Throat cancer (cancer of the pharynx) symptoms include:

  • Sore throat
  • Pain or trouble swallowing
  • Lump(s) in the neck
  • Unilateral ear ache

Laryngeal cancer (cancer of the voice box) symptoms include:

  • Swelling in the neck
  • Pain or trouble swallowing
  • Change in your voice
  • Unilateral ear ache
  • Coughing

Nasopharygeal cancer symptoms include:

  • Blocked nose
  • Chronic nosebleeds
  • Loss of hearing (most often in just one ear)
  • Lump(s) in the neck

Nose and sinus cancer symptoms include:

  • Lowered sense of smell
  • Chronic nosebleeds
  • Constantly blocked nose (most often only on one side)
  • Runny nose
  • Mucus drains down your throat

Salivary gland cancer symptoms include:

  • Pain – dull ache or shooting in nature
  • Lump in your salivary gland (parotid or submandibular or minor glands of the mouth)
  • A late sign is one side of your face droops like a Bell’s Palsy
  • Lumps in the neck

Thyroid cancer symptoms include:

  • Lump in the gland
  • Occasionally a hoarse voice
  • Lumps in the neck

These are often an incidental finding on an X-ray or ultrasound scan.

Skin cancer symptoms include:

  • Non-healing ulcers or scally patches on sun bleached skin
  • Changing (size, colour or thickness) melanotic patches

What causes head and neck cancer?

It isn’t definitively known what causes head and neck cancer, and different types of head and neck cancer can have different causes.

Mouth, throat and larynx cancers are caused by the consumption of alcohol or tobacco, but there are other risk factors that include:

  • HPV (human papilloma virus) – for throat cancer
  • EBV (Epstein Barr virus – a virus which causes fever in the glands) – for nasopharyngeal cancer
  • Older age
  • Gender – men are more likely to get head and neck cancer (due to social habits)
  • Occupation (e.g. long-term exposure to certain dusts or chemicals) – for nasal cancer
  • Having poor oral hygiene
  • Long-term exposure to sunlight/UV rays (skin cancer)
  • Having a condition that lowers your immunity (e.g. HIV, post -transplant)

How is head and neck cancer diagnosed?

If you have any of the symptoms listed above, you should speak to your consultant.

At your appointment, your consultant will enquire about your symptoms and will likely recommend that you undergo further tests, which can include:

  • X-rays
  • MRIs
  • CT scans
  • PT scans
  • An ultrasound
  • A nasendoscopy – a small tube affixed with a camera is used to look at the back of your mouth and throat
  • Trans-nasal flexible laryngo-oesophagoscopy (TNFLO) – a small tube affixed with a camera is used to look at your nose, larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), and oesophagus
  • A biopsy

How is head and neck cancer treated?

The treatment for head and neck cancer will depend upon which type of cancer that you have.

Treatment options for head and neck cancer include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • Chemoradiation (a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy)
  • Immunotherapy
  • Targeted therapies

You and your consultant can discuss which treatment will be best for you.

If you’re unsure what treatment you should go for, or the above treatments don’t work for you, our team of expert specialists are here to help.

Find your specialist in head and neck cancer at King Edward VII's Hospital

Mr Navid Jallali  ›
Special interests include:
Breast reconstruction (+ 3) more

Need some help?
Call 020 7467 4344

Our team is available to take your call Mon - Fri - 8am – 6pm

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