Squamous cell carcinoma is by far the most common type of cancer that develops from the lining of the mouth, nose, throat, or voice box. This year, more than 50,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with head and neck cancers, which account for 5 percent of all cancers diagnosed in men in the US and about 2 percent of cancer diagnoses for women. Men over the age of 40 are at the greatest risk of developing head and neck cancers. If detected early, head and neck cancers are highly treatable; a combination of surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy is frequently used depending on the location of the cancer and how advanced it is.
Tobacco and alcohol have traditionally been the and remain the most important risk factors for the development of oral, head and neck cancer. Tobacco and alcohol, when they are used together, have a synergistic effect. This means they each increase the cancer causing effect of the other. Much recent study has also looked at HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) and its connection with head and neck cancer. Many younger patients who do not have a history of alcohol or tobacco abuse and develop a head and neck cancer are found to have HPV in the cancer tissue. There has been a 60% increase in head and neck cancer in those under 45 and this is likely due to HPV infection. Many theories abound why this has become more common including changing societal sexual practices that allow this virus, which is usually thought of as a sexually transmitted disease, to access the oral cavity.
The diagnosis of head and neck cancer is usually done in the office of an Otolaryngologist- Head and Neck Surgeon. Experience shows that all too often the appropriate formal evaluation for head and neck cancer is delayed leading to the cancer becoming more advanced. This is partly because the symptoms are thought to be for instance just a throat infection or laryngitis and because the deeper areas of the throat cannot be seen without the use of a special telescope. Some warning signs that should prompt someone to see an Otolaryngologist are:
-New spot or ulcer on the mouth or tongue that does not go away
-Hoarseness or laryngitis that lasts beyond a couple of weeks
-Sore throat, trouble swallowing, or ear pain that does not get better with one course of antibiotics
-Lump or mass in the neck that does not get better with one antibiotic