Symptoms of head and neck cancer include:
- A lump in the neck. Cancers that begin in the head or neck usually spread to lymph nodes in the neck before they spread elsewhere. A lump in the neck that lasts more than two weeks should be seen by a physician as soon as possible.
- Change in the voice. Most cancers in the larynx cause some changes in the voice. If you are hoarse or notice voice changes for more than two weeks, see your doctor.
- A growth in the mouth. Most cancers of the mouth or tongue cause a sore or swelling that doesn’t go away. Any sore or swelling in the mouth that does not go away after a week should be evaluated by a physician.
- Bringing up blood. If blood appears in your saliva or phlegm for more than a few days, you should see a physician.
- Swallowing problems. Cancer of the throat or esophagus may make swallowing solid foods, and sometimes even liquids, difficult. If you have trouble almost every time you try to swallow something, you should be examined by a physician. Usually, a barium swallow x-ray or an esophagoscopy will be performed to find the cause.
- Changes in the skin. The most common head and neck cancer is basal cell cancer of the skin. Fortunately, this is rarely serious if treated early. Basal cell cancers appear most often on sun exposed areas like the forehead, face and ears but can occur almost anywhere on the skin. Other kinds of cancers, including squamous cell cancer and malignant melanoma also occur on the head and neck. If a sore on the lip, lower face or ear does not heal, consult a physician.
- Persistent earache. Constant pain in or around the ear when you swallow can be a sign of infection or tumor growth in the throat. This is particularly serious if it is associated with difficulty in swallowing, hoarseness or a lump in the neck.
As much as 90% of head and neck cancers arise after prolonged exposure to specific risk factors. Use of tobacco and alcoholic beverages are the most common cause of cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box and tongue. In adults who do not smoke or drink, cancer of the throat can occur as a result of infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). Prolonged exposure to sunlight is linked with cancer of the lip and is also established as a major cause of skin cancer.
Remember, when found early, most cancers in the head and neck can be cured with few side effects. Cure rates for these cancers could be greatly improved if people would seek medical advice as soon as possible. Play it safe. If you detect warning signs of head and neck cancer, see your doctor immediately.