This week is Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. Last year more than 63,000 Americans developed this cancer, and more than 13,000 died from it. Most of these cases, however, are preventable, so knowing the causes can help you prevent it, and knowing the signs can help you get early treatment.

Up to 90 percent of head and neck cancers are due to prolonged exposure to specific risk factors. Tobacco and alcohol are the most common causes of these types of cancers. In people who don’t smoke or drink, throat cancer can occur as a result of exposure to the human papilloma virus (HPV). Prolonged exposure to sunlight is a major cause of skin or lip cancer. Men are also 2 to 3 times more likely than woman to develop head and neck cancer, and people over the age of 40 are at a higher risk for it, too.

Preventative measures

Quitting tobacco is the best way to prevent these types of cancer. Up to 200,000 people die each year from smoking-related illnesses, and many people think switching from cigarettes to chewing tobacco will prevent cancer. In fact, it just makes it more likely to get cancer in the mouth instead of the lungs. Therefore, tobacco should be avoided entirely.

Reducing alcohol consumption can also lower the risk of developing these types of cancer. If you both smoke and drink your risk of these cancers is even higher, so you should eliminate both these habits from your life to reduce the likelihood of getting either type of cancer.

It is recommended you minimize exposure to the sun to reduce the chances of getting skin cancer.

Also, parents are encouraged to have their sons and daughters vaccinated against HPV when they are 11 or 12 years old.

“This will potentially save a lot of heartache and could make a major dent in the frequency of oropharyngeal and other cancers,” CEENTA Otolaryngologist and Head & Neck Cancer Specialist Donald Kamerer, MD, said.

Signs and symptoms

Fortunately, major advances in the diagnosis and treatment of head and neck cancer are now available. Symptoms of head and neck cancer include the following:

  • Changes in the skin: The most common kind of head and neck cancer is basal cell cancer of the skin, and can occur anywhere that is exposed to the sun. This is rarely serious if treated early. However, malignant skin cancers can also occur on the head and neck. Any mole that changes size or color, or begins to bleed, could be malignant. A black or blue-black spot on the face or neck should be seen immediately by a doctor.
  • A lump in the neck: Head and neck cancers usually spread to lymph nodes in the neck before spreading elsewhere. While not all lumps are cancer, a neck lump can be the first sign of an oral, head, or neck cancer. These lumps are usually painless and continue to grow steadily. A lump that lasts more than two weeks should be seen by a physician as soon as possible.
  • Vocal changes: Most cancers of the larynx cause some voice changes. While most voice changes aren’t cause by cancer, you should still see a doctor if you are hoarse or have noticed voice changes for more than two weeks.
  • Coughing up blood: This is often caused by something other than cancer. However, tumors can cause bleeding. If there is blood in your saliva or phlegm for more than a few days you should see a physician.
  • Swallowing problems: Throat or esophageal cancer can make swallowing food and liquids difficult. If you have trouble almost every time you try to swallow something, you should see a doctor.
  • Persistent earache: Constant pain in or around the ear when swallowing can be a sign of an infection or tumor in the throat, and is particularly serious when it accompanies difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, or a lump in the throat.

“Prompt recognition of the warning signs and an examination with appropriately-trained physicians are key to successful care,” CEENTA Otolaryngologist and fellowship-trained Head & Neck Cancer Specialist Daniel Brickman, MD, said.

When found early, many head and neck cancers can be cured with few side effects. While these symptoms can occur in patients who don’t have cancer, you should still see a doctor just to be certain. A preventative lifestyle and proactive behavior can help keep your life head and neck cancer-free.

If you have any of these symptoms and want to be checked for head and neck cancer, make an appointment with your doctor today.

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