Head and Neck Cancers

Premier Health providers answer frequently asked questions about the diagnosis and treatment of common head and neck cancers.

What are the symptoms of common head and neck cancers? Is neck pain a symptom?

A lot of times the most common symptoms could be a non-healing sore in the mouth, or a sore on the tongue that's non-healing with kind of an ulcerated look. Those are common symptoms for oral cancer.

Tonsillar cancer is more associated with the traditional head and neck cancer patients, who often smoke and drink heavily. A lot of times they'll actually present with ear pain, which is just a referred pain from the cancer that's growing in the tonsil. If it's invading some of the muscles that open and close the jaw, patients can present with a form of lockjaw that limits how well they can open their mouth. They can also have pain or problems with swallowing, as well as pain with chewing.

With HPV-related cancers, in many cases, patients won't even notice a sore in the mouth or any pain or limitations in opening their jaw. Instead they'll notice a cystic, mobile mass in their neck that's otherwise painless. When we do a little bit more investigation we can see that it might be coming from the tonsil or base of the tongue.

If it's a larynx cancer, or a voice box cancer, this will present early. Patients will notice a raspy and husky quality to their voice. A lot of times that brings them in to their doctor, who will refer them to us. We can actually visualize a mass on the vocal cords, or an abnormality that leads us to take them to the operating room and do a biopsy called a micro-direct laryngoscopy.

It really depends on the site, but the good news is, with the larynx cancers, many times patients will notice these voice changes, and that will bother them enough to get an early diagnosis.

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Source: Stewart I. Adam, III, MD, Premier ENT Associates