Frequently Asked Questions About Head and Neck Cancer

We understand that anxiety increases when a person receives a cancer diagnosis. That’s why the Henry Ford Cancer Institute is dedicated to providing you with accurate answers to questions about head and neck cancer. You and your family will need support and guidance, and we will make sure you have all the information you need as you go through the diagnostic process, your treatment, and your follow-up care.

Our team of medical professionals includes head and neck cancer surgeons, reconstructive surgeons, plastic surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, and specialized nurses. We value teamwork, and we are highly committed to providing you with compassionate and expert healthcare.

To help you right now, here are the answers to some frequently asked questions. If you have additional questions, please feel free to discuss them your care providers or contact us at (888) 777-4167.

Head and Neck Cancer Basics

Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

Head and Neck Cancer Treatment


Head and Neck Cancer Basics

Who has the highest risk for oral, throat, or tongue cancer?

People who use alcohol and smoke or chew tobacco have the highest risk for developing oral, throat and tongue cancer. Tobacco and alcohol use are linked to 75 percent of head and neck cancers.

What are the risk factors for head and neck cancer?

The risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

Is head and neck cancer more common in males or females?

Head and neck cancers are twice as common in males than in females. Also, men age 50 or older are more likely to be diagnosed with the disease than younger men.

Does a family history of oral, throat, or tongue cancer increase my risk?

A family history of squamous cell carcinoma increases the risk of oral, throat, or tongue cancer. This type of cancer starts in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucous surfaces in the mouth, throat, or nose.

Can race/ethnicity affect the risk of head and neck cancer?

Race does not affect the risk of getting head and neck cancer. However, research shows that African-Americans often have their first visit with doctors when head and neck cancer is more advanced.

What are the different types of head and neck cancers?

Different types of head and neck cancers include:

  • Oral cavity: mouth, tongue
  • Oropharyngeal: throat, back of the mouth
  • Nasal cavity: nose
  • Paranasal sinus: sinuses, openings near the nose
  • Nasopharyngeal: behind the nose, upper throat area
  • Laryngeal: voice box
  • Hypopharyngeal: voice box, lower part of the throat
  • Salivary gland
  • Thyroid
  • Lymphoma

Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

What are symptoms of head and neck cancer?

Symptoms of head and neck cancer may include:

  • A lump or sore that does not heal
  • A sore throat that does not heal
  • Problems swallowing or speaking
  • Hoarseness or a change in voice
  • Unusual pain or bleeding in the mouth
  • Jaw swelling
  • Ear pain
  • Frequent headaches
  • Chronic sinus infections

Can throat cancer cause hoarseness, sore throat, or ear pain?

Throat cancer can cause hoarseness, sore throat, or ear pain. It can also cause a persistent cough and difficulty swallowing.

Does head and neck cancer affect swallowing and breathing?

A cancerous tumor in the head or neck may prevent food or liquid from moving down the throat. Also, weakened muscles may prevent normal swallowing and breathing.

What type of screening is used for head and neck cancer?

The first step for an oral cancer screening or diagnosis is a physical exam. Discuss any symptoms with your doctor and have a general health screening once a year. Many symptoms are caused by non-cancerous problems. Complete evaluations may be done by an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.

How is oral, throat, or tongue cancer diagnosed?

Doctors and dentists diagnose oral, throat, or tongue cancer by looking for mouth sores and white patches, and then removing tissue to be studied by a pathologist. Throat cancer is diagnosed with the help of an endoscope equipped with a tiny camera. Throat tissue samples are taken and studied.

How is the stage of head and neck cancer determined?

The stage of head and neck cancer may be determined by blood tests, tissue samples, x-rays, scans, barium swallow, or examination under anesthesia (endoscopy). Then doctors use the TNM staging system:

  • T: Tumor size and location
  • N: Number of lymph nodes affected
  • M: Metastases (spread) of the cancerous tissue.

Which types of head and neck cancer have the best prognosis?

Papillary and follicular thyroid cancers have the best prognosis of all head and neck cancers. The 5-year survival rate for these cancers that have not spread is 99 percent. Also, HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers have a very good prognosis. Early stage tumors have the best prognosis.

Can head and neck cancer spread?

Head and neck cancer can spread to other areas of the body. Sometimes cancer cells travel to the lymph nodes. In other cases, they may travel to the lungs, liver, bone, kidney, and adrenal glands. When cancer cells travel or spread, it is called metastasis.

Is oral cancer or throat cancer that is related to the HPV virus contagious?

Oral cancer related to the human papilloma virus (HPV) is not considered to be contagious in long-term partners. Usually, the infection goes away within two years. Long-term partners have probably already shared the virus. Although HPV infections rarely cause cancer, most people have HPV exposure long before they develop cancer.

Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

What are the treatments for head and neck cancers?

Treatments vary for different types of head and neck cancers. Depending on the location and stage of the disease, the standard treatments include one or more of following:

Can the treatment for head and neck cancer affect speech?

Cancer treatments may cause speech problems. But even before cancer treatment, a tumor in the head or neck cancer may affect speech. Exercises for the jaw, tongue, lips, or larynx that are done before and after treatment may improve muscle strength and speaking ability.

Does head and neck cancer treatment affect swallowing and breathing?

Surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation treatments for head and neck cancer may have short- or long-term side effects, such as swallowing difficulties or dry mouth. Treatments may reduce lung capacity, cause breathing problems, or shortness of breath. Healthcare providers teach ways to improve breathing and swallowing to reduce these problems.

Is surgery required for all patients with oral, throat, or tongue cancer?

Depending on the location and stage of the tumor, surgery is required for most patients with cancer of the throat, tongue, lips, gums, or roof and floor of the mouth. Sometimes throat and larynx cancer can be cured with radiation and/or chemotherapy. Reconstructive surgery may improve appearance and functioning abilities.

Is chemotherapy required for all patients with oral, throat, or tongue cancer?

Some patients may receive chemotherapy for oral, throat, or tongue cancer:

  • Instead of surgery
  • Before surgery to shrink large tumors
  • After surgery to kill hidden cancer
  • To treat cancer that has spread
  • To kill cancer cells that cannot be removed by surgery
  • To treat symptoms of advanced cancer

Is radiation therapy required for all patients with oral, throat, or tongue cancer?

Some patients with oral, throat, or tongue cancer may need radiation therapy to:

  • Treat early stage cancer if it has not spread
  • Shrink large tumors before surgery
  • Kill or slow the growth of hidden cancer cells, or reduce the risk of recurrence after surgery
  • Treat symptoms caused by advanced cancer

Does oral, throat, or tongue cancer treatment affect the quality of life?

Treatment for cancer of the mouth, throat, or tongue cancer can affect a patient’s quality of lie. Problems may include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Loss of taste or teeth
  • Speech difficulties
  • Swallowing issues
  • Weakness due to poor nutrition
  • Weight loss

How can the quality of life be improved after head and neck cancer treatment?

After head and neck cancer treatment, a patient’s quality of life can be improved:

What are the chances of surviving head and neck cancer?

Surviving head and neck cancer varies by the:

  • Specific type of head and neck cancer
  • Stage of the disease
  • Duration of the disease
  • Previous treatment for the disease
  • Age and health condition of the patient

Does head and neck cancer recur?

Head and neck cancer can recur at the original site or at a distant site. About 35 percent of the patients develop recurrent cancer at the original site. Approximately 25 percent of the patients develop cancer at a distant site. This is known as metastatic cancer.

Can oral, throat, or tongue cancer be cured?

The goal of treatment for oral, throat, or tongue cancer is to cure the disease. If treatment is received for early stage oral cancer, the patient has a better prognosis and less likelihood that the cancer will recur.

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