Column: Understanding head, neck cancers


Commentary by Dr. Michael W. Sim

April is Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Month, a time to bring awareness to these conditions. Head and neck cancers occur twice as often in men as they do in women, but overall are relatively uncommon. 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 are, as they sound, any cancers that occur within the head and the neck. Many types of cancer fall under this category. 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 any unexplained lumps in the cheek or neck.

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, HPV, has come to play a major role in the growing incidence of throat cancers in the oropharynx, which includes the tonsils, base of tongue and soft palate. In fact, most oropharynx throat cancers we treat now are caused by HPV, not from smoking and drinking.

Many head and neck cancers develop in delicate locations that require great skill and experience for a successful outcome. One treatment option is transoral robotic surgery, which is a minimally invasive surgery that removes tumors through the mouth to treat the throat or voice box, while preserving swallowing and speech. Transoral laser microsurgery is also another option for small voice box tumors, which utilizes a microscope. Your physicians may also use radiation and chemotherapy to control your cancer. Additionally, reconstructive surgery is sometimes needed to restore function in your mouth or throat along with speech and swallowing therapy.

Learn more about IU Health’s head and neck cancer program at

Dr. Michael W. Sim, surgeon specializing in head and neck oncology and microvascular reconstruction at the IU Health Joe & Shelly Schwarz Cancer Center in Carmel.