Head and Neck Cancer

What is Head and Neck Cancer? 

Head and neck cancers typically begin in the cells that line the tissue inside the head and neck, including the mouth, nose, throat and salivary glands. Head and neck cancers are categorized by the area in which the cancer cells start to grow.

Baptist Health is known for advanced, superior care for patients with cancer and the diagnosis, treatment and management of head and neck cancers. You will appreciate timely appointments and a professional, friendly atmosphere where we take time to listen to your concerns. At Baptist Health, you have access to the region’s most comprehensive, multidisciplinary team of specialists and innovative therapies, including many available only through specialized clinical trials. In every way, we work to demonstrate the utmost in excellent care to those who trust us with their health

Signs and Symptoms

Head and neck cancer symptoms vary depending on where the cancer cells grow. In general, symptoms may include:

  • A lump in the head or neck area, with or without pain
  • Blood in the saliva or phlegm
  • Ear or jaw pain
  • Fatigue
  • Foul mouth odor, not from poor hygiene
  • Frequent nosebleeds or unusual discharge
  • Hoarseness or voice changes
  • Loosening of teeth
  • Nasal obstruction or persistent congestion
  • Numbness or weakness in the head or neck region
  • Pain or difficulty chewing, swallowing or speaking
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Red or white patches in the mouth
  • Swelling or a sore that doesn’t heal
  • Unintentional weight loss


To determine if someone has head and neck cancer, we ask about medical history and conduct a physical examination. We also use advanced diagnostic procedures and technology to effectively diagnose, inform treatment and carefully monitor the condition. Diagnostic procedures can include:

Biopsy: During an endoscopy, the physician may take a small piece of tissue from the mouth, throat, larynx or nasal passages and examine it under a microscope for cancer cells.

Computed tomography (CT) scan: This test uses X-rays to create a three-dimensional picture of head and neck structures. It can identify tumors and other abnormalities.

Endoscopy: During this test, a thin tube with a light and a lens is inserted in the mouth and down into the throat and larynx or through the nose into the nasal passages to check for inflammation, tumors or other abnormalities.

HPV testing: Certain oral and throat cancers can be caused by a viral infection called HPV (human papillomavirus). Swab tests can be performed to check for this infection.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An MRI uses magnetic fields, not X-rays, to produce detailed images of the body, and is especially effective for imaging soft tissue, such as the tonsils and base of the tongue.

Panorex: This rotating, or panoramic, X-ray of the upper and lower jawbones can detect cancer or evaluate the teeth before radiation or chemotherapy.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: In this test, a small amount of radioactive substance is injected into the body and is taken up by cells that use the most energy. Because cancer tends to use energy actively, it absorbs more of the radioactive substance. A scanner detects this substance to produce images of the inside of the body.

Ultrasound: This test uses soundwaves to create pictures of internal organs. 

Risk Factors

Risk factors that can contribute to head and neck cancer include:

Age: People over the age of 40 are at higher risk for head and neck cancer.

Drinking alcohol: Drinking alcohol is a major risk factor in developing head and neck cancer.

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection: Exposure to this mono-causing virus may play a role in the development of nose and throat cancers.

Race: African-Americans are more likely to develop certain types of head and neck cancer.

Exposure to environmental or occupational toxins: Asbestos, wood dust, paint fumes and certain chemicals may increase a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.

Gender: Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer.

GERD or LPRD: Gastroesophageal reflux disease and laryngopharyngeal reflux disease, which cause stomach acid to flow into the esophagus, upper airway and throat can lead to the development of some head and neck cancers.

HPV infection: Some strains of human papillomavirus are strongly associated with certain types of head and neck cancer.

Poor nutrition: A diet low in vitamins A and B can increase the risk of head and neck cancer.

Poor oral and dental health: Poor care of the gums and teeth can increase the risk of head and neck cancer.

Prolonged sun exposure/ sunburns: This is especially linked to cancer of the lips and skin of the head and neck.

Tobacco products: Tobacco use, including chewing tobacco and snuff, are the leading cause of head and neck cancer.

Weakened immune system: A weakened immune system – from certain medications, a chronic illness or a genetic condition – can increase the risk for head and neck cancer.


While many risk factors cannot be controlled, there are ways you can help prevent some types of head and neck cancer:

Don’t use tobacco: Smoking, using snuff or chewing tobacco is a known cause of many head and neck cancers.

Eat a healthy diet: Eat a diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, and exercise daily.

Get vaccinated: It is recommended all children ages 11 and 12 get two HPV vaccinations six to 12 months apart to protect them from infection, which is associated with certain types of head and neck cancer.

Practice good oral hygiene: Poor care of the mouth and teeth has been identified as a risk for some oral cancers.

Protect yourself from the sun: Use sunscreen and lip balm with an adequate SPF daily and avoid going outdoors when the sun is strongest.

Reduce the amount of alcohol you drink: Frequent drinking leads to some head and neck cancers. Limit alcohol to one drink a day for women and one to two for men. A drink is measured as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.


The earlier that head and neck cancer is diagnosed, the better the outcome. Prognosis varies based on the type of cancer and if it has spread to other areas of the head, neck and/or body.

Treatment and Recovery

Head and neck cancer treatment depends upon how far the condition has progressed, a person’s overall health and his or her preferences. Treatment methods may include:


Surgical options depend on the type, location and stage of cancer. Laser surgery can be used to treat some early-stage tumors. In some cases, a surgeon can remove a cancerous tumor and a margin of surrounding healthy tissue to cure the disease. If a physician suspects the cancer has spread, a surgeon may remove lymph nodes in the neck to look for signs of cancer. And, if cancer surgery requires major tissue (or even bone) removal, plastic surgery may be needed to restore a person’s appearance and function of the affected area.


Chemotherapy uses special drugs designed to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be administered as a pill or injected into the bloodstream and may be given before surgery to shrink a tumor, after surgery to kill remaining cancer cells and as a means of reducing symptoms.

Radiation Therapy

This treatment uses high-energy radiation directed specifically to the tumor site to kill cancer cells. Most often, radiation treatments are given five days a week for several weeks.

Targeted Therapy

This treatment targets the cancer’s specific genes or proteins, blocking the growth and spread of cancer cells while limiting damage to healthy cells.


Head and neck cancers can spread and recur, so follow-up care after successful treatment is important. In addition, the cancer itself and some treatments can result in complications, depending on the type, stage and locations. Common complications may include:

  • Trouble swallowing or speaking
  • Trouble eating due to dry mouth
  • Bleeding from a tumor
  • Obstruction of the nose or throat
  • Pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • High levels of calcium in the blood (parathyroid)
  • Malnutrition 

Next Steps with MyChart

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