Risk Factors for Head & Neck Cancers:

There are multiple risk factors for head and neck cancers. However the most common risks include tobacco use, alcohol consumption, a family history of cancer, and exposure to radiation.

Smoking tobacco significantly increases the risk for developing cancer of the oral cavity, tongue, throat (pharynx), larynx (voice box), trachea (windpipe), esophagus, and lungs. Smoking can also potentially induce many other types of cancer. Chewing tobacco increases the risk of oral cavity cancer. Pipe and cigar smoking are associated with lip cancers.

The use of tobacco of any kind can increase your risk for Head & Neck cancers by at least 4 times above normal. Quitting tobacco use will significantly reduce the risk of developing these and many other kinds of cancer.

Alcohol consumption in moderation (1 glass of red wine per day) may have beneficial effects on your heart. However, any excess alcohol consumption can have significantly deleterious effects on your life. A higher risk of Head & Neck cancer, as well as other types of cancer, exists as alcohol consumption increases. The risk is also at least 4 times higher than normal. When alcohol consumption is combined with tobacco use the risk level skyrockets. The risks do not simply add together to produce an 8 times higher risk. Instead the 2 factors combine to increase the risk of Head & Neck cancers by as much as 15 to 20 times above normal. Alcohol consumption in moderation may be beneficial, but anything more than 1 standard size drink per day increases your risk for cancer and many other health problems.

A family history of Head & Neck Cancer, particularly in a parent or sibling, will significantly increase your chances of developing a similar cancer. While there may be nothing you can do about your genetic predisposition to cancer it is possible to minimize your risk level. By eliminating other risk factors such as smoking or alcohol consumption you can keep your risk level as low as possible.

Radiation therapy is often used to fight cancer. It is actually a powerful tool used in the fight of Head & Neck cancers. It may therefore come as a surprise that radiation can actually lead to an increase risk of cancer. In fact, accidental, industrial, or medical radiation exposure can increase your chances of developing cancer in the future. This should NOT stop you from accepting radiation therapy if your doctors prescribe it for cancer treatment. The future risk of cancer is always weighed against the need for radiation before any treatment is prescribed.

Radiation exposure can increase your risk for most types of cancer. In the Head & Neck region the biggest risk increase is for thyroid cancer. Even small doses of radiation to the thyroid gland can increase your risk of thyroid gland cancer. If you work in an environment where you are exposed to radiation you should have your thyroid gland checked regularly by your physician. You should also take steps to reduce your exposure to radiation whenever possible.

There are a multitude of other risks that can lead to the development of Head & Neck Cancers. However the main risks are those listed above.

Signs and Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers:

The following list of symptoms may help guide you regarding the possible existence of a Head & Neck Cancer. This list does not necessarily list ALL of the symptoms of these types of cancer. Rather, it is meant to discuss the most common signs and symptoms of Head & Neck cancers.

Head & Neck Cancers can present in a number of ways. The most common sign of a possible Head & Neck cancer is a lump (mass) in the neck. In children most neck masses are due to an infection. However, in adults as high as 50% of all neck masses are likely to be cancer. Your physician or a Head & Neck cancer surgeon should evaluate any mass (lump) in the neck. Antibiotics may be used as the first line treatment. However, any neck mass that does not go away within 10 to 14 days should be biopsied.

Hoarseness or any change in the voice quality should be considered a possible warning sign of cancer. Hoarseness is often one of the earliest signs of cancer of the larynx (voice box). The important point is that larynx cancer is extremely curable when it is caught early. It does NOT mean you will lose your larynx. Organ sparing treatments have been developed that frequently allow you to achieve successful treatment with minimal or no surgery. Hoarseness or any change in voice that is present for more than a week should be evaluated by a physician who is capable of examining the larynx, throat, and tongue in detail. Tongue and throat cancers can also affect the quality of your speech. The physicians who examine and treat these areas are Otolaryngologists (ENT surgeons). All of the physicians at Berks ENT Surgical Associates are highly skilled in this form of examination.

Difficulty swallowing can often be a sign of cancer. A cancer deep in the throat will often be detected when a patient has trouble swallowing. Difficulty swallowing can also be caused by many other problems, however cancer should be suspected. Tongue cancers will also cause swallowing problems. Examination of the deep areas of the throat and tongue is usually done by an ENT surgeon.

Any sore in the mouth or throat that does not heal within 2 weeks may be a cancer and should be examined by your physician. If your doctor is concerned about the possibility of cancer a referral to an ENT surgeon is often recommended. Examination by an ENT surgeon with experience in dealing with Head & Neck cancers will help clarify the source of the sore. A biopsy may be necessary to diagnose or rule out cancer. Any delay in treating these kinds of lesions can result in a need for more extensive treatment if cancer is diagnosed. Treatment when the cancer is at an early stage is extremely beneficial.

Persistent pain in the mouth, throat, or neck may be a sign of cancer. Usually cancer is painless at its earliest stages. As a cancer enlarges it may affect the surrounding nerves resulting in pain. The cancer will often be visible by the time pain is occurring. Pain indicates a more advanced stage of the cancer. Therefore it is crucial that treatment be rendered in a timely manner. At Berks ENT Surgical Associates, cancer is given high priority and treatment is started as soon as possible after diagnosis.

When Head & Neck cancers are advanced, they will usually lead to difficulty swallowing and loss of appetite. These 2 factors usually result in rapid weight loss. Any unintentional weight loss greater than 5 pounds in a given month should be considered a possible sign of cancer. If combined with any of the previously described signs of Head & Neck cancer, a thorough examination by an ENT specialist should be performed.

Treatment of Head and Neck Cancers:

The treatment of any cancer of the Head & Neck region will usually involve consideration of 3 different types of treatment, surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. To view a detailed discussion of these treatment options please click here.

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