Types of Head and Neck Cancers

We treat many different forms of cancer of the head and neck

Every year, U.S. doctors diagnose an estimated 55,000 Americans with a head or neck cancer. Our team treats all head and neck cancers with minimally invasive techniques.

What types of head and neck cancers does Henry Ford treat?

When head and neck cancers develop, they usually do so in the cells that line the moist, mucus-producing areas of the mouth, nose, and throat. These cells are called squamous cells.

We can diagnose and treat the full range of head and neck cancers, including thyroid cancer. This includes:

  • Oral cancer

    Oral cancer also may be called oral cavity cancer or mouth cancer. The oral cavity includes several areas of the mouth:

    • Bony top of the mouth (hard palate)
    • Front part of the tongue
    • Gums
    • Inside lining of the cheeks and lips (buccal mucosa)
    • Small area behind the wisdom teeth (retromolar trigone)
    • Under the tongue

    Oral cancer comprises about 85 percent of all head and neck cancers. Some of the risk factors for oral cancer include:

    • Being male -- twice as many men than women are diagnosed with oral cancer
    • Excessive sun exposure, particularly for cancers of the outer lip in light- or fair-skinned people
    • Heavy alcohol use
    • Hereditary conditions, which we can screen for with our cancer genetic testing
    • Infection with the human papillomavirus, or HPV
    • Using tobacco in any form, especially smokeless tobacco, but also cigarettes, cigars, or pipes

    Symptoms of oral cancer can include:

    • Bleeding sores in the mouth that don’t heal within two weeks
    • Change in speech
    • Difficulty moving the tongue or jaw
    • Dramatic weight loss
    • Loosened teeth or changes in the way teeth or dentures fit together
    • Lump in the gums, lip, or mouth
    • Pain when swallowing
    • White or red patches in the mouth that don’t heal within two weeks
  • Nasal and sinus cancers

    These types of cancer also may be called nasal cavity cancer. Air passes through the nasal cavity from the nose on its way to the throat. The paranasal sinuses are small, hollow spaces around the nose. Nasal cancer can form in either the nasal cavity or the paranasal sinuses.

    Nasal and sinus cancers are rare. Doctors in the United States diagnose about 1,500 cases per year, comprising just 1 percent of all cancers nationwide. Some of the risk factors for nasal and sinus cancer include:

    • Being male
    • Caucasian ancestry
    • Exposure to chemicals or dust, especially people who work in bakeries, mills, or shoemaking facilities
    • Infection with human papillomavirus, or HPV
    • Smoking

    Symptoms of nasal cancer can include:

    • Difficulty breathing
    • Facial pain or pressure
    • Lump on the face or roof of the mouth
    • Lump or sore that doesn’t heal inside the nose
    • Nasal congestion, obstruction, or discharge
    • Nosebleeds
    • Pain in the sinus region or upper teeth
    • Pressure in the middle of the face
    • Upper teeth feeling loose or numb, or poorly fitting dentures
    • Recurring sinus infections
    • Swelling or problems with the eyes
  • Salivary gland cancer

    The salivary glands are located under the tongue and in other areas of your mouth. These glands release saliva, a fluid that moistens the mouth and plays an important role in digestion. Salivary gland cancer is rare. Doctors only diagnose one out of every 100,000 people in the United States with salivary gland cancer each year.

    We don’t know the specific causes of salivary gland cancer. But we do know some suspected risk factors, such as:

    • Older age -- most people with salivary gland cancer are age 60 or older
    • Radiation exposure -- exposure to radiation at work or during radiation therapy for other conditions can increase the risk of salivary gland cancer
    • Workplace exposures to certain dangerous substances, such as asbestos, certain metals or minerals, or other substances

    Salivary gland cancer may not have any noticeable symptoms at first. A doctor or dentist may notice a tumor during a routine examination. If you notice any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your cancer doctor:

    • Difference in size or shape of the left and right sides of the face
    • Difficulty opening your mouth widely or swallowing
    • Dramatic weight loss
    • Fluid draining from the ear
    • Lump in the ear, cheek, jaw, lip, or mouth
    • Pain, numbness, or weakness in the face
    • Swelling or a sore in the mouth
  • Throat cancers

    There are several different types of throat cancer. These depend on where in the throat the cancer starts. Many of these include the pharynx, or the medical term for the throat. Throat cancers include:

    • Hypopharyngeal cancer, or cancer of the hypopharynx (the bottom part of the throat)
    • Larynx cancer, or cancer of the voice box, which contains the vocal cords (also called laryngeal cancer)
    • Nasopharyngeal cancer, or cancer behind the nose or in the top part of the throat (the area of the throat called the nasopharynx)
    • Oropharyngeal cancer, or cancer that starts where the mouth and throat meet, including the base of the tongue, tonsils, and soft palate

    Some of the risk factors for throat cancers include:

    • Asian ancestry
    • Exposure to certain viruses, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) or the Epstein-Barr virus (also known as human herpesvirus 4, which causes infectious mononucleosis)
    • Heavy alcohol use
    • Hereditary conditions, which we can screen for with our cancer genetic testing
    • Tobacco use, especially smoking

    Throat cancers may not have any noticeable symptoms at first. If you notice any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor:

    • Ear pain, ringing in the ears, or trouble hearing
    • Frequent headaches
    • Hoarseness or voice changes (such as a higher or thinner voice)
    • Lump in the neck
    • Painful swallowing
    • Persistent throat or neck pain
    • Trouble breathing or speaking
  • Skin cancer

    Skin cancer is very common, and can develop in the head and neck region because of the area’s excessive sun exposure. Some of the risk factors for skin cancer include:

    • Fair skin color – people with fair skin that freckles and burns easily or does not tan, red or blonde hair and light-colored eyes (blue or green)
    • Exposure to UV rays – exposure may be through sunlight or tanning beds over long periods of time
    • Environmental exposures – especially people who are exposed to radiation and certain solvents and chemicals
    • Weakened immune system – people who have a weakened immune system because of illness or certain medical treatments (such as organ transplant)

    Use the ABCDE system to check for changes in moles:

    • Asymmetry -- One half of the mole is unlike the other half
    • Border -- The edges of the mole are wavy, scalloped or poorly defined
    • Color -- Color is not the same from one area to another. It might include shades of tan and brown, black, or sometimes red, white, or blue
    • Diameter -- Many melanomas are larger than 6 mm across (the size of a pencil eraser)
    • Evolution -- The spot is changing, including getting larger, more raised or redder

    Other symptoms of skin cancer include:

    • A spot that bleeds, oozes or itches for no apparent reason
    • A spot that forms a crust or is ulcerated (forms a hole in the skin where tissue below shows through)
    • A spot that does not heal
    • A lump develops that is either small, smooth and shiny, or red and rough
    • Development of new moles near an existing mole (called satellite moles)
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