How are common head and neck cancers discovered and diagnosed?

Unfortunately, many head and neck cancer patients, such as those who smoke and drink heavily, also commonly have dental problems. Many times they have bad teeth, so we see a lot of referrals from dentists concerned about lesions in the oral cavity. Dentists do an oral cavity cancer screening as part of their evaluation.

If a patient is concerned about a non-healing painful ulcer in their mouth, or problems with swallowing, or ear pain, or difficulty opening and closing the jaw, those are signs something might be going on. However, as far as how cancers are discovered and diagnosed, sometimes symptoms will bring it on, such as nose bleeding for nasal or sinonasal cancers.

We have unique tools that give us an enhanced ability to visualize areas in the body that are otherwise hard to see. We have small rigid endoscopes in our clinics that allow us to look into the nose and nasal passageways and see anything abnormal.

Sometimes head and neck cancer patients will present with ear pain and decreased hearing because there may be a mass in the back of their nose that blocks where the Eustachian tube can drain, and that leads to fluid in the middle ear and hearing loss. So if a patient has hearing loss, and it's not getting any better, and we see that there's fluid in there, and it's not getting drained, an important part of that exam is to look with a nasal endoscope into the back of the nose and that nasopharynx area, and make sure that there's not a cancer that's growing.

We also have flexible scopes that allow us to look in the back of the throat, and at the vocal cords to make sure nothing’s going on. Then, by just feeling the neck, we can feel whether or not there is a mass there or if anything suspicious is going on.

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