Cancer is never pretty. Head and neck cancers can be particularly gruesome. It can steal your ability to speak, eat, swallow and recognize yourself in the mirror. Head and neck cancers include cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, skin, sinuses, saliva glands and thyroid glands.
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Each year, oral cancer kills more people in the U.S. than other more widely known forms of cancer, including skin cancer (malignant melanoma), lymphatic cancer (lymphoma), thyroid and cervical cancer.
April is Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Month. This year, more than 55,000 Americans will develop cancer of the head and neck — most of which is preventable. Nearly 13,000 of them will die of it. Tobacco use is the most preventable cause of these deaths. In the U.S., as many as 200,000 people die each year from smoking-related illnesses.
Fortunately, most head and neck cancers produce early symptoms. You should know the potential warning signs so that you can alert your doctor as soon as possible. Successful treatment depends on early detection. Recognizing the signs of head and neck cancer can save your life.
Symptoms of head and neck cancer include:
• Lump in the neck: Head and neck cancers usually spread to lymph nodes in the neck before they spread elsewhere. See a physician if a neck lump lasts more than two weeks. Many will be benign (not cancerous), but it needs to be evaluated.
• Growth in the mouth: Sore, ulcer or swelling, with or without pain.
• Blood in saliva or phlegm: Tumors of the nose, mouth, throat or lungs can cause bleeding. If this is present for more than a few days, get checked by your physician.
• Trouble swallowing: Cancer of the throat or esophagus may make swallowing solids difficult.
• Changes in the skin: The most common head and neck cancer is basal cell cancer of the skin, which usually presents as a pink nodule. Melanomas typically are irregularly pigmented (discolored) flat or raised lesions. See a physician if you notice a sore (ulcer), nodule, pink/red scaling area or colored “mole” that is changing, irregular, multicolored, bigger than a pencil eraser or bleeding.
• See a slideshow on WebMD called “Precancerous Skin Lesions and Skin Cancer Slideshow” at www.webmd.com/melanoma-skin-cancer/slideshow-skin-lesions-and-cancer.
• Persistent earache: Constant pain in or around the ear can be a sign of a tumor in the head and neck.
As many as 90 percent of head and neck cancers arise after prolonged exposure to specific risk factors. Use of tobacco and alcoholic beverages are the most common cause of cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box and tongue. Infection with the human papillomavirus also may cause these cancers. Prolonged exposure to sunlight is the established cause of skin cancer.
All of the symptoms and signs described can occur with no cancer present. However, if you notice these symptoms, see your doctor to be sure. Cure rates improve with early detection.
Protect your health. Don’t smoke or chew. Drink in moderation. Practice safe sun. Put head and neck cancer specialists in retirement.
For more information about oral cancer, visit www.oralcancerfoundation.org.
Dr. Maryann Wall is based in Steamboat Springs. She is board-certified by the American Board of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery and the American Board of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.