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Head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer refers to cancer that affects any part of the head and neck except the brain. They can involve the following areas:

  • Larynx or voicebox
  • Mouth, including the lip, tongue, gums and lining of checks and mouth
  • Salivary glands (rarely malignant)
  • Sinuses and nasal cavity
  • Throat

Common causes and risk factors

  • Frequent tobacco use and alcohol consumption
  • Being exposed to sunlight
  • Being infected with human papilloma virus (HPV)
  • Being male
  • Being exposed to certain substances at work
  • Older age


Symptoms differ for each type of head and neck cancer, and many symptoms can be caused by other, less serious, conditions. Consult your doctor if you experience these symptoms:

  • A change or hoarseness in the voice
  • A lump or swelling in the neck, throat, mouth or jaw
  • A sore throat or cough that does not go away
  • A sore that doesn’t heal
  • Pain or pressure in the ear
  • Jaw pain or loose teeth
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Headaches or pain in the sinus areas
  • Double vision
  • Difficult or painful swallowing


With any cancer, early detection is the key to successful treatment. The Via Christi Cancer Center provides state-of-the-art cancer diagnostic services. Here are some of the ways your doctor may diagnose head or neck cancer.

  • Image testing such as MRI, CT, PET, EUS, X-rays and barium testing.
  • Biopsy, the surgical removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.
  • Endoscopy,  a procedure to look at organs and tissues in your body using a thin, lighted tube inserted through a cut in the skin or opening in the body, such as the mouth.
  • Exfoliative Cytology, using a piece of cotton, a brush or a small wooden stick to gently scrape cells from the patient’s lips, tongue, mouth or throat. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
  • Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA) Biopsy, in which the doctor removing tissue or fluid using a thin needle. A pathologist views the tissue or fluid under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
  • Laryngoscopy, an examination of the larynx with a mirror or with a thin, lighted tube called a laryngoscope.
  • Nasoscopy, a lighed tube used to look inside your nose for abnormal areas.


If you have cancer of the head or neck, your doctor may recommend any of the following treatments.

  • Radiation Therapy uses high-dose X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It can be internal or external.
  • Chemotherapy uses medicines to destroy cancer cells. You may receive it by injection or through your veins.
  • Surgery may be performed to remove tumors from the jaw and face.