Health Hub: Oral Oncology

Head and neck cancer–know your risk.




April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. Also referred to generally as "oral cancers," head and neck cancers include lip cancer, gum cancer, jaw cancer, soft palate cancer, and carcinoma of the tongue and cheek. These cancers occur most often in the tongue, the tonsils, the gums, and the floor of the mouth.

According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 52,000 men and women will be diagnosed with cancers of the head and neck in 2018. While the average age of people with head and neck cancer is about 62, the disease can occur in people of any age and is more than twice as common in men as in women.

Tobacco: It's past time to quit

The most common causes of head and neck cancer are alcohol and tobacco use. More than 85 percent all cancers of the head and neck are generally caused by chewing and smoking tobacco. As the American Cancer Society points out, smokers are many times more likely than non-smokers to develop these cancers.

  • Tobacco smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or pipes can cause cancers anywhere in the mouth or throat, and is responsible for cancer appearing in many other areas of the body.
  • People who smoke pipes are at particular risk for cancers in the lips.
  • Oral tobacco, including snuff and chewing tobacco, not only causes cancers of the cheek, gums, and inner surface of the lips, but can destroy the bone sockets around teeth, and cause tooth loss.

A new concern: HPV

In recent years, the overall rate of new cases of head and neck cancer has been stable in men and dropping slightly in women. However, there has been a recent rise in cases of oropharyngeal cancer (commonly called "throat cancer") linked to infection with human papillomavirus type 16 (HPV16) in white men and women. An astonishing 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers are likely caused by HPV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, HPV-associated throat cancers affect more than 3,100 women and 12,638 men.

HPV can be passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact and through sexual activity, including intercourse and oral sex.

Screenings are easy

Your dentist and primary care doctor can perform head and neck cancer screenings at routine exams, looking for any suspicious changes to your oral tissues, masses or enlarged lymph nodes. If you have any concerns whatsoever, ask for a screening.

Because early diagnosis and treatment of head and neck cancers is so important to their successful resolution, a good primary care physician will immediately refer patients with a suspected or confirmed carcinoma to a surgical oncologist to quickly evaluate treatment options. Appropriate treatment will depend on the type of cancer and could include surgery, targeted chemotherapy and radiation.

Symptoms and signs of head and neck cancer depend on the type of cancer, but can include:

  • Lump felt on the neck
  • Vocal changes (hoarseness)
  • Sore throat that never goes away
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Jaw swelling
  • White or red patches in mouth tissue
  • Mouth sores that won't heal
  • Headaches
  • Pain in affected areas
  • Ear pain  
  • Numbness or paralysis of the face

The board-certified head and neck surgeons of Florida ENT Surgical Specialists devote their advanced skills to helping patients across Central Florida and beyond to overcome serious medical issues ranging from cancers of the head and neck to hearing disorders, voice problems, thyroid tumors, and skin cancers. Their world-class physicians and audiologists provide the most specialized and effective treatments available today, along with a confident and compassionate approach at every level of patient care. For more information or to schedule an appointment, visit FHMedicalGroup.com or call (407) 988-2226.

Florida Hospital Medical Group is the Orlando area’s most comprehensive multi-specialty medical group practice. With nearly 600 board-certified physicians, our group provides patients with a broad range of medical and surgical services across more than 40 medical specialties.

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