Cancers that are collectively known as head and neck cancers generally originate in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck (for example, inside the mouth, the nose, and the throat). These squamous cell cancers are frequently referred to as squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck. Head and neck cancers can also get activated in the salivary glands, but salivary gland cancers are comparatively uncommon. Salivary glands contain many diverse types of cells that can turn out to be cancerous, so there are many diverse types of salivary gland cancer.
Cancers of the head and neck are further classified by the area of the head or neck in which they originate. These parts are described below:
• Oral cavity: It includes the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, the lowermost surface of the mouth under the tongue, the uppermost portion of the mouth and the small area of the gum behind the wisdom teeth.
• Pharynx: The pharynx (throat) is a hollow tube. It is about 5 inches long and it starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. It has three parts: the nasopharynx (the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose); the oropharynx (the middle part of the pharynx, including the soft palate [the back of the mouth], the base of the tongue, and the tonsils); the hypopharynx (the lower part of the pharynx).
• Larynx: The larynx is also known as the voicebox, it is a short passage formed by cartilage just below the pharynx in the neck. The larynx encloses the vocal cords. It also has a small piece of tissue, called the epiglottis, which moves to cover the larynx to stop food from entering the air passages.
• Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose. The nasal cavity is the hollow space inside the nose.
• Salivary glands: The major salivary glands are in the floor of the mouth and near the jawbone. The salivary glands produce saliva.
Risk Factors of the head and neck cancer
• Alcohol and tobacco are the two most significant risk factors for head and neck cancers, particularly cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx. At least 75% of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol consumption. People who consume both tobacco and alcohol are at a greater risk of developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol.
• Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV-16, is also a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers, particularly oropharyngeal cancers.
• Consumption of certain preserved or salted foods during childhood can prove to be a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer.
• Poor oral hygiene can also become a risk factor for cancers of the oral cavity. Use of mouthwash that has high alcohol content is a potential, but not proven, risk factor for cancers of the oral cavity.
• Exposure to radiation is risky especially for the head and neck area. Make sure you never get too much exposed to harmful radiation.
What are the symptoms of head and neck cancers?
The warning signs of head and neck cancers may include a bump or a sore that does not heal, a sore throat that does not go away, trouble in swallowing, and a change or gruffness in the voice. These warning signs may also be produced by other, less serious conditions but still you must be careful if you notice any such sign or symptom in your body. It is essential to check with a doctor or dentist about any of these warning signs. Signs that may affect specific areas of the head and neck include the following:
• A white or red patch on the gums, tongue or on the lining of the mouth
• Swelling of the jaw and unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth
• Trouble while breathing or speaking
• Pain in the neck or the throat that does not go away
• Frequent headaches, pain, or itching in the ears
• Pain when swallowing or ear pain
• Sinuses that are blocked and do not clear
• Chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics
• Bleeding through the nose
• Pain in the upper teeth or problems with dentures
• Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone
• Numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face
Prevention of head and neck cancers
People who are at the danger of developing head and neck cancers should talk with their doctor about ways that they may be able to decrease their risk. They should also talk over with their doctor how often to have medical checkups.
How are head and neck cancers diagnosed?
To find the cause of the signs or symptoms of a problem in the head and neck area, a doctor evaluates a person’s medical history, performs a physical examination, and orders diagnostic tests. The exams and tests may vary depending on the symptoms. Examination of a sample of tissue under a microscope is always necessary to confirm a diagnosis of cancer.
How are head and neck cancers treated?
The treatment plan for a cancer patient depends on various factors, including the exact situation of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and the person’s age and overall health. Treatment for head and neck cancer can consist of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of treatments.