The first thing to know about head and neck cancer is that we’re not talking about brain cancer, thyroid cancer, or esophageal cancer. Head and neck cancer refers to malignant tumors that occur in your mouth, nose, sinuses, throat, and larynx.

As a group, these cancers affect about 4% of all adults, but your chances of being one of them are high if you use tobacco products. Your risk is even higher if you use tobacco and drink too much alcohol.

Here at Broward ENT Services, we specialize in diagnosing and treating head and neck cancers. We’re offering this rundown on the five primary types and their symptoms so you’ll know what to watch for and when to seek help.

Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer

The oral cavity simply refers to your mouth. Oropharyngeal cancer includes tumors that develop in your throat, soft palate, tonsils, and the base of your tongue. These tumors usually begin as precancerous changes in your mouth or throat that cause the following symptoms:

  • Leukoplakia: White or gray patches
  • Erythroplakia: Red areas that bleed easily
  • Erythroleukoplakia: A patch with red and white areas

Smoking and chewing tobacco are the top causes of mouth and throat cancer, with an estimated 85% of all cases associated with tobacco use.

Salivary gland cancer

You have three sets of major salivary glands along each side of your face, called parotid glands, submandibular glands, and sublingual glands. About 70% of all tumors begin in the parotid glands, which are located right in front of your ears.

Roughly 20% of tumors start in the submandibular glands just below the jaw, while the sublingual salivary glands underneath your tongue seldom develop tumors. You also have several hundred minor salivary glands that are too small to see, but these glands seldom develop tumors.

Nasopharyngeal cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer develops in the nasopharynx, which is the upper part of your throat right behind your nose. The most common type of nasopharyngeal cancer is a carcinoma, which means it starts in cells lining the throat.

If you develop nasopharyngeal cancer, you may notice lumps in your neck, typically on both sides and toward the back of your neck. These lumps will not be painful, but they should be examined quickly because they mean the cancer has spread into your lymph nodes.

Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer

Your nasal cavity and sinuses are lined by a layer of mucosa, or mucus-producing tissue. When you develop nasal or sinus cancer, it most often begins in cells in the mucosa. However, cancerous tumors can also occur in the nerves, cartilage, muscles, and bone in this region.

Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers

These cancers develop in your larynx (voice box) and hypopharynx, which is a structure that prevents food from getting into the larynx. Although the experts aren’t sure about their precise cause, there’s no doubt that your risk is significantly higher if you use tobacco products or over-consume alcohol. Tobacco and alcohol change genes in the nearby tissues, which allows cells to overgrow and turn into cancer.

Symptoms of head and neck cancers

All five types of head and neck cancers may cause a noticeable lump in your neck, cheek, or jaw. You may also develop pain or a sore inside your mouth and difficulty swallowing.

These are a few symptoms unique to each of the primary head and neck cancers:

  • Mouth and throat: Pain in your mouth, feeling like something is caught in your throat, and trouble chewing, swallowing, or moving your tongue
  • Salivary glands: Facial numbness, muscle weakness or paralysis, and pain in your mouth, cheek, jaw, or neck that doesn’t go away
  • Nasopharyngeal: Stuffy nose, nosebleeds, facial pain, and symptoms in your ears rather than your throat, such as ringing or pain in your ear, hearing loss
  • Nasal cavity and sinuses: Pain above or below your eyes, nasal congestion, post-nasal drip, nosebleeds, and loss of smell
  • Laryngeal: Change in voice, constant coughing, pain when swallowing, difficulty swallowing

If you develop any symptoms that last for two weeks, it’s important to come in for a complete examination. Call Broward ENT Services or schedule an appointment using the online booking feature.

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