Each year, more than 55,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral, head and neck cancers. Most of these cases are preventable – or, when found and treated early, even curable. In fact, the majority of cancers affecting the mouth, throat, voice box (larynx) and tongue are caused by tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption or ultraviolet (UV) light exposure. And, with the recent increase in oral cancer diagnoses related to human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, the early detection of oral, head and neck cancers is now more important than ever. Knowing and recognizing the signs can save your life.
During a routine dental check-up, most dentists perform an examination of the patient’s mouth to screen for cancer. Some dentists also offer additional tests to aid in identifying abnormal cells. Many types of oral, head and neck cancers also produce symptoms in early stages. While most of these signs can also be caused by less serious conditions, only a physician can make that determination with accuracy. Therefore, it’s important to seek prompt medical attention for:
- Neck lumps – A lump in the neck area that remains visible or palpable for more than two weeks should be evaluated by a physician. Cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, and thyroid often spread to lymph nodes in the neck.
- Voice changes – Hoarseness and other voice changes that last for more than two weeks warrant an examination of the vocal cords for signs of cancer of the larynx.
- Soreness, swelling or bleeding in the mouth – Any mouth ulcer or other abnormality that is accompanied by neck lumps or persists for more than a week should be seen by a medical professional.
- Blood in the saliva or phlegm – Tumors in the nose, mouth, throat and lungs sometimes cause bleeding; if the bleeding lasts for more than a few days, it’s best to have it checked out.
- Swallowing problems – Cancers of the throat or esophagus can sometimes cause swallowed foods and liquids to “stick” and then either pass to the stomach or come back up. Persistent swallowing problems should be evaluated by a physician.
- Skin changes – Basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma often develop on the head and neck, usually on sun-exposed areas like the forehead, face and ears. Any unusual skin growths, discolorations or moles should be seen by dermatologist or other physician.
- Persistent earache – Constant pain in or around the ear, especially when swallowing, can be a sign of an infection or tumor in the throat. Symptoms like these should be evaluated by an otolaryngologist.
The prognosis for most oral, head and neck cancers can be significantly improved if the condition is promptly diagnosed and treated. Individuals who have questions or concerns about symptoms are welcome to consult with the multispecialty team of experts in the Head and Neck Cancer Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. To learn more, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form. No referrals are required.