- Most head and neck cancers begin in the thin, flat cells of the lining of the throat, mouth and nose. These cells are known as squamous cells
- Not all tumours in the head and neck are cancerous
- Each year more than 5,100 people in Australia are diagnosed with head and neck cancer
- Head and neck cancers are more common in people over the age of 40
Head and Neck Cancer
Cancers of the head and neck occur when cancerous cells develop and grow in an uncontrolled way and form tumours.
Cancers of the head and neck include the following areas:
Mouth (oral cavity)
This includes the lining of lips and cheeks, hard palate and the first two thirds of the tongue, as well as the gums and tonsils
This is also known as the voice box, and contains the vocal cords used for making sound. The larynx connects the windpipe (tube that connects to the lungs) with the lower part of the throat
The pharynx is also known as the throat. Cancer can affect any three areas that make up the pharynx including:
- Nasopharynx – This is the upper part of the throat, behind the nose
- Oropharynx – This includes the base of the tongue to the tonsils in the back of the throat
- Hypopharynx – This is the lower region of the throat, including behind the voice box
Nasal cavity and sinuses
The nasal cavity is the area inside the nose. The area behind the nose consists of four sinuses which impact on the sound and tone of speech.
This is where saliva is produced to help digest food and protect against infections. Most of the tumours found here are typically benign (non-cancerous).
Cancers of the brain, thyroid gland, eye and oesophagus are not included in the classification under ‘head and neck’ cancer.
As signs and symptoms for head and neck cancer can be similar to other common conditions, it’s important to see your GP or healthcare professional if you experience any of the symptoms below. Discussing anything concerning with your doctor as soon as possible can help give you peace of mind and offer the best chance of successful treatment if you receive a head and neck cancer diagnosis.
Symptoms may include:
Bleeding in the nose/mouth area or coughing up blood
Pain of any kind or a lump in the mouth or neck area
Ongoing sinus infections
Pain with chewing or swallowing
Ongoing blocked nose
Loss of senses such as smell, having double vision or difficulty hearing
Patches of white or redness in the mouth area (i.e. tongue, lining of mouth and gums)
The TNM system is used to stage head and neck cancer, and it helps doctors understand what your cancer looks like.
The TNM stands for:
- Tumour – Describes the size of the tumour and the extend the cancer has spread
- Node – Describes whether the tumour has spread to nearby lymph nodes. Nodes can be graded from N0, where the has been no spread, through to N3, where the cancer has spread to other lymph nodes
- Metastasis – Describes whether the cancer has spread to other areas of the body outside of the lung. Metastasis can be graded from M0, where there has been no spread through to M1c, where the cancer has spread to other organs of the body and produced additional tumours
People who have a first degree relative, such as a sibling or parent, have an increased risk of developing some head and neck cancers.
There are two common inherited disorders that have been linked to head and neck cancer, including:
- Fanconi anaemia – A rare blood disorder that develops at an early age which may lead to myelodysplastic syndrome or leukaemia. People with this condition are at a high risk of developing cancers of the throat or mouth
- Dyskeratosis congenita (disorders of blood) – A genetic condition that causes rashes of the skin and aplastic anaemia. People with this condition are at a high risk of developing cancers of the throat or mouth at an early age
The cause of head and neck cancer is not fully known, however there are some factors which contribute to the risk of head and neck cancer developing, including:
- Age – The risk for head and neck cancer increases for people over 40 years
- Certain lifestyle-related factors – Including drinking alcohol, smoking or chewing tobacco, poor oral hygiene, exposure to toxins, and consumption of preserved and salty foods
- History of infections – Being infected by the human papillomavirus (HPV) or the Epstein-Barr virus (the virus that causes glandular fever)
- Sex – The risk for head and neck cancer is more common in men than women
Each year more than 5,100 Australians are diagnosed with head and neck cancer, with the majority being male (approximately 70%).
The most common type of cancer is mouth and tongue (oral cancer), accounting for 37% of all head and neck cancers.
There are a number of lifestyle-related factors you can consider to reduce your risk of developing head and neck cancer, like:
- Quit smoking – Cigarette smoking carries a significantly higher risk of developing mouth and larynx cancer
- Reduce your alcohol intake – If you choose to drink, try to limit your alcohol intake to no more than two standard drinks a day. Alcohol consumption has a dose-response relationship with cancer (meaning the more you drink the higher the risk of developing cancer). The consumption of alcohol has been related to cancers of the larynx, pharynx and oral cavity
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet – Eat a fibre-rich diet from grain and legume sources, as well as enjoy a variety of fruit (2 serves) and vegetables (5 serves) per day, limit your intake of salt, saturated fats, and avoid all processed meat. Eating foods high in salt and preservatives in childhood can increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer
- Avoid exposure to workplace chemicals, dust and other toxins – People who have been exposed to workplace chemicals and dust have an increased risk of developing cancers of the nasal cavity and sinuses
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- Cancer Council. (2021). Understanding Head and Neck Cancers. Retrieved on 15 November 2021 from https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Understanding-Head-and-Neck-Cancers-2021.pdf
- Australian Government: Cancer Australia. (2020). Types of head and neck cancer. Retrieved on 15 November 2021 from https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/cancer-types/head-and-neck-cancer/types
- Australian Government: Cancer Australia. (2020). What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer? Retrieved on 15 November 2021 from https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/cancer-types/head-and-neck-cancer/symptoms-and-diagnosis
- Cancer Council. (2021). Staging and prognosis for head and neck cancer. Retrieved on 15 November 2021 from https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/head-and-neck-cancer/diagnosis/staging-and-prognosis/
- American Cancer Society. (2021). Risk factors for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers. Retrieved on 15 November 2021 from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html
- Australian Government: Cancer Australia. (2020). What are the risk factors for head and neck cancer? Retrieved on 15 November 2021 from https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/cancer-types/head-and-neck-cancer/awareness
- World Health Organisation. (n.d). Cancer Prevention. Retrieved on 15 November 2021 from https://www.who.int/cancer/prevention/en/
- Australian Government: Cancer Australia. (2020). Lifestyle risk factors and the primary prevention of cancer. Retrieved on 15 November 2021 from https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/resources/position-statements/lifestyle-risk-factors-and-primary-prevention-cancer
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