Head and neck cancer


Head and neck cancer is a form of malignancy that starts in the head and neck region of the body, which includes the nose, mouth, throat, and salivary glands. It is usually caused by lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Symptoms can vary depending on the location and type of cancer, but may include persistent sore throat, hoarseness, ear pain, and difficulty swallowing. Treatment for head and neck cancer typically includes chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or a combination of the three. Early detection and treatment are key to a successful outcome.


Head and neck cancer can have a wide range of symptoms depending on the specific type. Generally speaking, the most common symptoms include:

  • A lump or sore in the head or neck that doesn’t go away or bleed easily
  • Difficulty breathing, swallowing, or speaking
  • Swelling or a feeling of fullness in the face, neck, or jaw
  • Pain in the throat or ear
  • Chronic hoarseness or a change in the voice
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Ear pain
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Unusual bleeding from the nose or mouth
  • A sore tongue or difficulty moving the mouth or tongue
  • Unusual lumps or bumps on the neck


Known causes of head and neck cancer include excessive tobacco and alcohol use, a weakened immune system, and exposure to certain viruses, such as Epstein-Barr virus and human papillomaviruses (HPV). Risk factors for head and neck cancer also include a family history of this type of cancer, certain genetic mutations, prior radiation therapy, and heavy exposure to wood dust, asbestos, and certain industrial chemicals.

Risk factors

The main risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

  • Smoking cigarettes, cigars, and pipes
  • Chewing tobacco
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Poor diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Age (50 and over)
  • Male gender
  • Family history of cancer
  • Sun exposure
  • Exposure to certain chemicals (formaldehyde, wood dust, asbestos, or nickel)
  • Previous radiation therapy
  • Chronic sinus infections or certain allergies
  • Weakened immune system (HIV, organ transplant, chemotherapy)


Head and neck cancer is typically diagnosed through a physical examination, imaging scans, and biopsy. A physical examination can reveal any unusual bumps or lesions in the head and neck area. Imaging scans, such as a CT scan or MRI, can help the doctor see if there is any abnormal tissue in the area. Lastly, a biopsy is done to determine if the cells in any abnormal tissue are cancerous or not.


Head and neck cancer, also known as oropharyngeal cancer, is an umbrella term for a variety of cancer types that can occur in the structures of the head and neck. These can include cancers of the mouth, throat, nose, and salivary glands, as well as the lymph nodes, thyroid, and parathyroid glands. The various subtypes of head and neck cancer include:

  1. Squamous cell carcinomas, which is the most common type of head and neck cancer. It is a cancer of the cells that line the airways, throat, and mouth.
  2. Adenoid cystic carcinoma. This type of cancer is rare but can occur in the salivary glands, throat, and sinuses.
  3. Salivary gland carcinomas. These cancers can occur in the major or minor salivary glands and can spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
  4. Nasal and sinus cancers. These are rare types of cancers that can occur in the nose, sinuses, and nasal cavity.
  5. Laryngeal cancers. This type of cancer is a tumor of the larynx, or voice box.
  6. Nasopharyngeal cancers. These are rare cancers located at the back of the nose and upper throat.
  7. Thyroid cancer. This type of cancer is a malignant tumor that can originate in the cells of the thyroid gland.
  8. Skin cancer. Skin cancer can also occur in the head and neck area and can affect the skin and other structures of the face, scalp, and neck.


Treatment options for head and neck cancer vary depending on the stage and type of cancer diagnosed. Common treatments may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and/or targeted therapies. The treatment plan that is best suited to a patient’s individual needs should be discussed with their healthcare provider.

Surgery may involve the removal of one or more parts of the body in the head and neck area, depending on the size and position of the tumor. Radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells in the affected area. Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that works to destroy cancer cells throughout the body. Targeted therapies are specifically designed to target and treat cancer cells without harming normal cells.

In addition to these treatments, patients may also opt for reconstructive surgery, which may involve the use of skin grafts or artificial implants. Other therapies such as cryotherapy, immunotherapy, and brachytherapy may also be used, depending on the individual situation.

The treatment plan should also involve an emphasis on lifestyle and diet changes, as well as emotional support. Head and neck cancer can be difficult to cope with and individuals should ensure that they have emotional support and help throughout the treatment process.


  1. Avoid using tobacco in any form, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, smokeless tobacco, and chewing tobacco.
  2. Limit or avoid drinking alcoholic beverages.
  3. Wear sunscreen and protective clothing to limit ultraviolet light exposure from the sun and tanning beds.
  4. Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
  5. Avoid exposure to environmental and occupational carcinogens.
  6. Reduce, or avoid exposure to air pollution, including second-hand smoke.
  7. Get vaccinated for the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).
  8. Practice safe sex and use protection to reduce your risk of HPV infection.
  9. Practice good oral hygiene and visit the dentist regularly to detect potential problems early.
  10. 0. Get regular check-ups and screenings to detect any cancerous or pre-cancerous lesions.

Gender differences?

Yes, there are gender-specific differences in the presentation and management of head and neck cancer. Men tend to be more affected by head and neck cancers than women. Men are more likely to report symptoms such as a sore throat, hoarseness, or a lump in the neck. Certain risk factors, including tobacco use and alcohol consumption, may be higher in men than in women. In addition, men may be more likely to present with more advanced stages of disease due to delayed diagnosis or lack of regular primary care visits.

In terms of management, male head and neck cancer patients typically receive more aggressive treatment due to the higher rate of recurrence in men. For example, radiation therapy may be more commonly recommended for men due to the increased likelihood of recurrence. Additionally, men may be more likely to receive aggressive surgery, such as laryngectomy, than women due to their higher risk of recurrence.

Overall, gender-specific differences in the presentation and management of head and neck cancer should be taken into consideration when assessing and treating patients. Men may benefit from more frequent follow-up visits and close monitoring in order to detect any recurrences early.


Nutrition plays a critical role in the management of Head and Neck cancer. Poor nutrition can not only negatively impact a person’s overall health, but can make treatment more complicated and difficult. A good diet can help patients maintain their strength and energy while they are going through treatment. Good nutrition also helps the body to respond better to treatment and can help to reduce the side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiation. Eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and high-quality proteins can help Head and Neck cancer patients maintain their health and their ability to tolerate treatments. Additionally, high fiber foods can help reduce some of the common side effects associated with treatment, such as constipation, diarrhea, and nausea.

Physical Activity

Physical activity has been found to reduce the risk of developing head and neck cancer, due to its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties that may help protect against certain cancers. Studies suggest that physical activity reduces the risk for certain types of head and neck cancers and can reduce mortality rates by up to 25%. Regular physical activity can also improve immunity and reduce stress, both of which are linked to a reduced risk of cancer. Additionally, physical activity helps maintain a healthy weight, which is associated with a lower risk of cancer. Therefore, incorporating physical activity into daily routines may help reduce the risk of developing head and neck cancer.

Further Reading

  1. https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/head-neck-fact-sheet
  2. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0145561320934920
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7720415/
  4. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/page/journal/10970347/homepage/forauthors.html
  5. https://medlineplus.gov/headandneckcancer.html
  6. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/14458-head-and-neck-cancer
  7. https://mydoctor.kaiserpermanente.org/ncal/structured-content/Condition_Head_and_Neck_Cancer.xml?co=/regions/ncal

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