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There are many cancers that develop in and around the head and neck.  Cancer can form in almost any area or tissue of the head or neck, and can even spread from other parts of the body to the head and neck.  Some of the more common areas of the head and neck in which cancers can form include:
The Larynx or Voice Box:  The most common type of cancer of the voice box is called squamous cell carcinoma.  Squamous cell carcinoma is commonly associated with smoking.  Common symptoms of voice box cancer include hoarseness, shortness of breath, noisy breathing or stridor.  
The Mouth/Oral  Cavity:  Cancers of the mouth/oral cavity are also most commonly from squamous cell carcinoma and are also most frequently associated with smoking, chewing tobacco, and alcohol use.  Common symptoms of mouth cancer include pain of the tongue or throat, pain with swallowing, or a mass or lesion of the oral cavity.  
The Pharynx or Throat:  The pharynx is the tubular structure that connects your mouth to your esophagus.  Cancer of this area is also most commonly caused by squamous cell carcinoma.  Common symptoms associated with this type of cancer include painful swallowing, ear pain, weight loss, shortness of breath, and/or hoarseness.  
Skin:  Cancers of the skin can occur to any portion of the head and neck skin, but are most commonly found on the sun exposed portions of the head and neck.  The cheeks, nose, ears, neck and lips are common sites for this kind of cancer.  The most common types of skin cancer include Basal Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, Melanoma, and Merkel Cell Carcinoma.  Skin cancers are commonly associated with significant sun exposure in the past, and can even vary by the color of your skin.  
Nasal Cavity: Cancer can form deep in the nasal cavities.  While not as common as other types of head and neck cancer, you can form cancers of the salivary and mucous producing glands of  the nose, the olfactory nerve tissue of the nose, as well as the cartilage and bone in the nasal cavity.  Common symptoms of this type of cancer include nose bleeds, bulging of an eye, or nasal obstruction.  
Thyroid Cancer:  The thyroid gland is located in the front of the neck just above the breast bone.  It produces a hormone that regulates your metabolism.  There are actually several different types of thyroid cancer.  While some types of thyroid cancer can be very aggressive, fortunately most types are more slow growing.  The most common symptom of thyroid cancer is a painless nodule in the area of the thyroid gland.  You can also develop hoarseness from a thyroid cancer.  

Causes of Head and Neck Cancer:

The single most common risk factors for the most common type of head and neck cancer (squamous cell carcinoma) include cigarette smoking, chewing tobacco use, and/or alcohol use.  The risk of oral cavity, larynx, and throat cancers is increased when tobacco and alcohol are used in combination.  Other causes of head and neck cancers include HPV or human papilloma virus and Epstein-Bar virus, a history of radiation exposure, exposure to industrial pollutants such as wood dust, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and certain dietary habits.  Different ethnic groups can also experience increased risk of certain types of cancer (for example, those of Chinese descent suffer from Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma at a much higher rate than those of other ethnic groups). 

Presenting Symptoms for Head & Neck Cancer:

The symptoms of head and neck cancer are sometimes subtle and can often mimic benign conditions.   A mass in the neck is a frequent initial symptom of a head and neck cancer.  Voice changes or shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing or pain with swallowing, ear pain, nosebleeds, a growth in the mouth, or coughing up blood are also frequent symptoms of a head and neck cancer.  It is important to to pay attention to these symptoms and seek care when they are recognized.  One of the most important predictors of treatment success in head and neck cancer is the size of the tumor when it is first discovered.  This is why it is so important to seek treatment as soon as possible after symptoms have been recognized. 

Diagnosis of Head & Neck Cancer:

Diagnosis of head and neck cancer usually begins with a physical exam.  Once a tumor has been identified on physical exam, there are several steps required to fully diagnose the type of cancer. 
  • Biopsy:  A sample of tissue from the tumor must be obtained before treatment can begin.  A biopsy will help determine what type of tumor is present.  A biopsy is usually done as either a fine needle aspiration biopsy or FNA, or an open/surgical biopsy.
  • A CAT Scan (Computed Axial Tomography):  This is often one of the first imaging studies done to determine the size and location of the tumor.   The purpose of the CAT scan is to help determine where the tumor is located and how large it is.  
  • An MRI Scan (Magnetic Resonance Imaging):  This is similar to the CAT scan, but uses a powerful magnet to generate an image instead of X Ray beams.  Your doctor may order either a CAT scan or an an MRI or sometimes both to evaluate and characterize a tumor.  
  • A PET Scan (Positron Emission Tomography):  A PET scan is a specialized test that is used after diagnosis to help determine how widespread a tumor is and where else it is located.  

Treatment of Head & Neck Cancer:

In general, head and neck cancers can be treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy.  Sometimes a combination of these treatments will be used to treat a head and neck cancer.  The exact type of treatment used is determined by the type of cancer (determined by a biopsy) and the extent of the tumor (determined by a CAT scan, MRI scan, or a PET scan).  Many different types of doctors and other specialists may be required to effectively treat a head and neck cancer.   Also, even if initial treatment of a head and neck is successful, a patient will need close follow-up monitoring for many years.