Column: Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer

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Commentary by Dr. Michael Sim

April is Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. As with all cancers, the earlier that physicians can diagnose head and neck cancers, the better the outlook for recovery and return to a normal lifestyle. Head and neck cancers occur twice as often in men as they do in women, but overall are relatively uncommon. That being said, it takes a special level of skill and care to treat a patient diagnosed with this specific kind of cancer.

Types of head and neck cancer

Many types of cancer fall under the category of head and neck cancer. This includes those on the skin of the head and neck, inside the nose and sinuses, mouth and throat, salivary glands, thyroid gland and at the base of the skull. Several symptoms are associated with this kind of cancer, including skin bumps or sores that don’t heal, mouth or throat ulcers, trouble swallowing, ear pain, difficulty breathing, double vision, change or hoarseness in the voice, blocked sinuses and unexplained lumps in the cheek or neck.

Lifestyle choices can increase risk 

There are several known risk factors for head and neck cancer. This includes common lifestyle choices such as tobacco use and alcohol use, which play a major role in head and neck cancers. Poor oral hygiene, ultraviolet exposure (skin cancer) and some occupational exposures to wood, metal, formaldehyde and other substances are also considered risk factors. Human papilloma virus, or HPV), has come to play a major role in the growing incidence of throat cancers located in the oropharynx which includes the tonsils, base of tongue and soft palate.  In fact, the majority of oropharynx throat cancers we treat now are caused by HPV, and not from smoking and drinking.

Treating head and neck cancers

Many head and neck cancers develop in delicate and critical locations that require great skill and experience for a successful outcome. Fellowship-trained head and neck surgical oncologists and microvascular reconstructive surgeons provide advanced treatment to both remove malignant tumors of the head and neck and to reconstruct the resulting defects using tissue transplant techniques to recover the patient’s function and appearance. For example, a patient who requires a portion of their lower jaw removed because of cancer can have the jaw reconstructed using their own fibula bone from the lower leg with low morbidity. Tumors located far back in the throat can also be removed in minimally invasive fashion through the mouth using advanced robotic technology for faster recovery and fewer permanent side effects.

Learn more about IU Health’s Head and Neck Program at iuhealth.org/find-medical-services/head-neck-cancer.

Dr. Michael Sim is a head and neck surgical oncologist and microvascular reconstructive surgeon at IU Health Joe & Shelly Schwarz Cancer Center at IU Health North Hospital.

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