Head and Neck Cancer

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Head and Neck Cancer

By C. Milford, Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford and S. Anuku
Disclaimer:The details in this section are for general information only. Always check with your own doctor.

Causes of tumors and lumps in the head and neck

Tumours / lumps around the head and neck can arise and be due to several factors. In most cases those arising from / within the skin are non-cancerous (benign), but on occasion such growths may be / become cancerous (malignant). Early diagnosis and prompt treatment can result in the successful treatment of such conditions.

Head and Neck Cancer is the term used to describe a variety of malignant tumours which develop in the mouth (Oral Cavity), throat (Pharynx), voice box (Larynx), salivary glands and the nose and sinuses.

Approximately 80% of neck lumps in adults are cancerous (malignant), while 20% are non-cancerous (benign). The opposite is true in children, where 80% of lumps are benign and 20% are malignant. Cancerous lumps or tumours tend to be painless and enlarge progressively.

What are the symptoms of Cancerous (malignant) lumps?

Most suffers of head and neck cancer are heavy smokers or drinkers. Following a referral to an ENT surgeon, a thorough examination of the patient will occur in the clinic. The examination often involves using a small flexible ‘telescope' to examine the nose/throat under a local anaesthetic. Symptoms of cancerous (malignant) lumps or growths may include:

  • persistent pain in the throat and difficulty swallowing food and liquids (Dysphagia)
  • swellings or ulcers in the mouth, which are initially painless until they become infected
  • persistent loss or change in the voice (Hoarseness), lasting more than several weeks, which is not accompanied by a viral infection e.g. laryngitis or flu
  • bleeding in the mouth and throat
  • constant earache especially when swallowing
  • the appearance of white lesions (Leukoplakia) and red lesions (Erythroplakia) in the mouth, which last more than several weeks
  • a new / change in existing black or blue spot on the face or skin (Malignant Melanoma)

N.B.

Many of the above symptoms can also be associated with other, less serious, problems in the head and neck i.e. they are not only seen in cases of head and neck malignancy.