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Head and Neck Cancers: What is it, Causes, Symptoms and Treatment


Head and Neck Cancers: What is it, Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Head and neck cancers are the name given to the uncontrolled and abnormal proliferation of cancer cells that can occur in the head and neck part of the body. Early diagnosis and early treatment of head and neck cancers is extremely important. While it can be a cure for common head and neck cancers, it can also cause permanent damage in some cases. To prevent these damages, some treatment methods can be applied to destroy cancer cells or stop the progression.

What are Head and Neck Cancers?

Head and neck: consists of the oral cavity, nasopharynx (upper pharynx), oropharynx, hypopharynx (lower pharynx), larynx, sinuses, some parts of the ear and neck. Head and neck cancers refer to various types of cancer that occur in the head and neck regions of the body. All types of cancer occur when cells grow uncontrolled and abnormally in a certain part of the body. Head and neck cancers are defined by some names depending on the area of ​​involvement.

Oral cancer; It covers the lips, tongue, gums, cheeks, floor of the mouth and palate. The term throat or neck cancer is also sometimes used for cancer of the nasopharynx, larynx and esophagus.

Head and neck cancers are classified as follows according to their location:

oral cavity cancer

It covers the lips, tongue, gums, cheeks, floor of the mouth and palate. Lip cancer is most common in the lower lip and is more common in men than women. Its incidence increases with advanced age. Tongue cancer, like other types of cancer, occurs when cells multiply abnormally. Tongue cancer is easier to diagnose than other types of cancer because it is in the oral cavity and in the open. It is closely related to smoking. Gum cancer is associated with irritants such as improper dentures. Cancers of the floor of the mouth and the back of the jaw are particularly difficult to recognize.

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Nasopharynx (upper pharynx) cancer

Nasopharynx, also known as the nasal passages, is the part behind and above the nose and throat. Cancer occurring in the nasopharynx is called nasopharyngeal cancer. Early detection of nasopharyngeal cancer is difficult. It may manifest itself with ear problems and nasal congestion. Sometimes the first symptom may be a mass in the neck.

Larynx (throat) cancer

The larynx is a structure that separates the respiratory and esophagus and is located in the throat, after the pharynx. Thanks to its opening and closing structure, it prevents the eaten food from accidentally entering the trachea. The formation of malignant cells in the larynx is called laryngeal cancer. Laryngeal cancer usually occurs in the upper part of the larynx.

Hoarseness lasting more than 3 weeks should be included in the differential diagnosis.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity cancer

Paranasal sinuses are sinuses located next to the nasal cavity. Tumors that occur in the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity may be called sinus cancer or nasal cancer, depending on their location. Malignant nasal cavity cancer is rare. These are cancers that have a lower risk of metastasis at the time of diagnosis.

salivary gland cancer

Salivary glands are structures located in the head and neck region that produce saliva that helps digestion. The secretion produced by the salivary gland also contains antibodies that prevent infections. There are many types of salivary gland cancer. However, most salivary gland tumors are benign and do not spread.

What are the Causes of Head and Neck Cancers?

Cancers can affect all age groups. However, the occurrence of cancer types is more common in individuals aged 65 and over. Most types of cancer are more common in men than in women. Age, gender and many other factors may play a role in the development of head and neck cancers. The most important of these are cigarettes and alcohol. In addition to these factors, the incidence of cancer is higher in industrialized societies. Consumption of ready-made food, radiation exposure, nutrition and personal care habits can also cause some cancers.

The incidence of head and neck cancer types such as larynx cancer is high in Turkey. The main reason for this is attributed to cigarette consumption in men. Factors that cause head and neck and other cancers may depend on genetics and family structure. On the other hand, hormonal factors, dietary factors, physical factors, chemicals, viruses, bacteria and parasites can also be effective. Although genetic structure is not the sole cause of cancer formation, it can help cancer formation. It is known that tobacco use is one of the biggest causes of cancer in the world. Smoking is known to cause many cancers such as lung, head, neck, esophagus, cervix, pancreas and bladder cancer.

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What are the symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancers may cause some symptoms or no symptoms at all. In general, we can list some important symptoms as follows:

  • Swelling in the head and neck,
  • swelling around the eyes,
  • Numbness, tingling in the mouth,
  • hoarseness of voice,
  • difficulty swallowing,
  • Cough,
  • Difficulty breathing,
  • Difficulty in swallowing,
  • Some sores in the mouth, tongue and lips,
  • Earache, ringing or decreased hearing.

How Are Head and Neck Cancers Diagnosed?

Early diagnosis of head and neck cancers is of great importance. Almost three-quarters of all head and neck cancers are detectable during examination. Your doctor may perform some tests to make the diagnosis. These tests may include a physical exam to check the mouth, nose, throat, and tongue. Another diagnostic method that may be required is endoscopy. Your doctor may need endoscopy to examine the larynx, throat, and nasal cavity. He or she may request blood or urine samples to be examined in the laboratory. Imaging methods such as X-ray, MRI (magnetic resonance), CT (Computed Tomography) can be used. He or she may also require a biopsy sample to be examined by a pathologist. The biopsy sample can be taken under operating room conditions, in the outpatient clinic, or as a needle biopsy with the help of local anesthesia for salivary gland lesions. If necessary, a biopsy sample can be taken surgically under general anesthesia. Biopsy is the most assured method to make a definitive diagnosis of the type of cancer.

How is Head and Neck Cancer Treated?

Treatment of head and neck cancers varies from person to person and depending on the type of cancer. The aim of cancer treatment is to ensure healing and regain diminished functional features. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy methods are used in the treatment of head and neck cancers. In some cases, more than one treatment method can be used. An example is complementary radiotherapy after surgery. While the aim of these methods is to ensure recovery, sometimes they are to prevent distant spread and prolong life. Head and neck cancers are treated with care that combines many different health disciplines. The personalized treatment plan is determined according to the histological structure of the tumor, its size, location and the patient’s condition. In addition, age, gender and general health condition are also effective in choosing the treatment method.

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What are the methods used in the treatment of head and neck cancers?

In head and neck cancers, the treatment method is determined according to the spread of cancer cells. Only one of the surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy methods can be used in the personalized treatment method. In some cases, double or triple combined treatment methods are used.

Surgical treatment

Surgical treatment is a method used to remove cancerous tissue or organ from the body. It can be effective in cases where the cancer has not spread. Even if there is spread of cancer cells, surgery can be used together with other treatment methods. Surgical treatment is a very frequently used method.


Chemotherapy is the name given to chemicals used to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy is effective throughout the body compared to other treatment methods. Chemotherapy can be used in cases where cancer cells spread.


Radiotherapy, that is, radiation therapy, can be used alone or as a combined treatment. Cancer cells are tried to be destroyed by radiation produced in special devices. The aim of using radiotherapy in head and neck cancers is to treat the cancer, prevent or delay its spread, and reduce pain.

The first step in the treatment of head and neck cancer is to determine the stage of the cancer. Tumors are staged histologically under four headings. In stages 1 and 2, cancer cells are small and recovery occurs with surgical treatment in these stages. Chemotherapy or radiotherapy may also be used additionally to prevent any remaining spread. In stages 3 and 4, tumor cells may have spread to surrounding tissues and lymph nodes. Stages 3 and 4 represent advanced spread. It is generally aimed to treat cancer by applying combined treatment with surgery and radiotherapy, or additionally chemotherapy.

It is possible to prevent head and neck cancers or reduce symptoms when diagnosed and treated early. If you are experiencing symptoms that are common in head and neck cancers, such as hoarseness, cough and difficulty swallowing, you can contact healthcare institutions, consult specialist physicians and ask questions you are curious about.


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