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Head & Neck Cancer: 5 Things You Should Know

He felt like his food was getting stuck when he swallowed. It hurt when he slept on the right side of his neck. She was getting hoarse for no reason. The dentist noticed unusual white patches in his mouth. His jaw became swollen, painful and tender.

They all had head and neck cancer.

April is Head & Neck Cancer Awareness Month!

It's likely a type of cancer you don't think or hear much about. I hope to change that because unfortunately, it is becoming more prevalent. I also aim to encourage you to be more in tune with your body and your habits.

Head and neck cancer is a group of cancers that affect various portions of the head and neck. More specifically, this group of cancer includes the following:

Oral cavity- mouth, lips, cheeks, front of the tongue, under the tongue, the roof of the mouth and upper and lower gums

Pharynx (includes nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx)- throat; a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. The nasopharynx is the upper part of the throat behind the nose. The oropharynx is the middle part of the throat including the back of the mouth, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils. The hypopharynx is the lower part of the throat.

Larynx- voice box

Paranasal sinuses- air-filled spaces that surround the nasal cavity

Nasal cavity- inside of the nose

Salivary glands- glands that produce saliva (spit) through a system of ducts. Humans have three major pairs.

Here are 5 things you should know about head and neck cancer.

1. Head and neck cancer account for approximately 4% of all cancers in the United States. It is twice as common among men than women. Most cases happen in persons over 50 years old.

2. At least 75% of head and neck cancer is caused by tobacco and alcohol. This includes smokeless tobacco aka chewing tobacco.

3. About 70% of cancer of the oropharynx is linked to the Human Papillomavirus also known as HPV. Human papillomavirus is a common virus that can lead to cancer later in life. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Many people do not develop symptoms but can still infect others through sexual contact. Some people develop warts. Consider HPV vaccines. Use condoms and dental dams during oral sex.

4. Signs and symptoms include pain, swelling, poor healing and unusual bleeding from any of the head and neck areas listed above. See your primary health clinician, dentist or ENT (ear, nose and throat doctor) as/if problems arise.

5. Treatment is available and depends on a number of factors including age, stage, and comorbidities. Treatment includes surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and a combination thereof. Rehabilitation could be needed as well.

I hope you have learned more about this less talked about type of cancer! Don’t panic! A sneeze or sinus congestion does not mean you have cancer. The goal is awareness and education. Share with a friend what you have learned.

For more information on head and neck cancer, visit, or

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