upper respiratory tract illustration
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Where Do They Start?

The moist surfaces inside your mouth, nose, and throat are the most common places for head and neck cancers to grow. Your salivary glands also have cells that can become cancerous, but that’s more rare. Doctors further classify these tumors by their specific location in your body.

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doctor examining male patients throat
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What Are the Symptoms?

A lump in your neck or a sore in your mouth that doesn’t heal is cause for concern. Other warning signs include hoarseness or a scratchy throat that doesn’t get better and pain in your neck, jaw, or ears. You also might have nosebleeds often or be congested. Many of these issues can be caused by other conditions, too.

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man smoking and drinking beer close up
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What Raises Your Chances?

If you regularly drink alcohol and use tobacco -- smoke or smokeless -- you’re more likely to get a head or neck cancer than someone who doesn’t. People with the human papillomavirus (HPV) have higher odds, too, and poor dental health also can boost your chances.

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lip cancer close up
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Type: Oral Cancer

These cancers affect your lips and gums, the front two-thirds of your tongue, your cheek and lip linings, under your tongue, and the roof of your mouth. Because of this, your dentist might be the first to spot a problem. Early signs include a lump or sore that doesn’t heal, and you might see a red or white patch on your gums or inside your cheek. If your dentures start to fit poorly, that’s another symptom.

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doctor testing endoscopic probe
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How Is Oral Cancer Diagnosed?

If your doctor thinks you might have a problem, the next step probably will be an endoscopy -- your doctor uses a long, thin tube with a light and lens on it to get a better look at your mouth. He also will probably want to check a sample of cells under a microscope. He might take a small sample of tissue (called a biopsy), or you might have an exfoliative cytology, which uses a tool to scrape off a few cells.

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oral surgery
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Treatment for Oral Cancer

Standard treatment involves surgery to take out the cancer and any abnormal tissue that may have spread to other areas, including lymph nodes in your neck or nearby bone. That’s usually followed by radiation therapy, which kills any remaining cancer cells or stops their growth. Your medical team might include an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor, cancer specialists, dentist, plastic surgeon, and speech therapist.

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laryngeal cancer
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Type: Laryngeal Cancer

Your larynx, also called your voice box, is at the top of your trachea, or windpipe. Hoarseness, trouble swallowing, and a visible lump in your neck are among the symptoms of this type of cancer. Your chances of getting it are higher if you use tobacco or drink alcohol regularly, but breathing in asbestos, wood or metal dust, or paint fumes at work can play a role, too. This condition is more common in men than in women.

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laryngoscopy of healthy larynx
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How Is Laryngeal Cancer Diagnosed?

A laryngoscopy gives your doctor a close-up look at your larynx. A thin tube with a light and lens goes through your mouth. It can also have a special tool on it to take out a few cells, which your doctor will check under a microscope. You also might have a barium swallow, when you drink a chalky liquid that helps abnormal areas show up on X-rays.

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iv drip close up
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Treatment for Laryngeal Cancer

The type of surgery you’ll need depends on your specific case, but it can be possible to save your voice. Radiation and chemotherapy -- strong medicine that kills cancer cells -- are also part of the standard treatment. New treatments being tested include drugs to lower the chances cancer will come back (chemoprevention) and medicines that help the radiation work better (radiosensitizers).

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laryngoscopy of healthy larynx
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Type: Pharyngaeal Cancer

Your pharynx, or throat, stretches from behind your nose to the top of your esophagus (the tube that carries food to your stomach). It’s divided into three parts: nasopharynx (behind your nose), oropharynx (back of your mouth, base of your tongue, and tonsils), and hypopharanx (the bottom part). Nasopharyngeal cancer is more common in Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean than in the U.S.

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doctor examining mri scans
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How Is Pharyngeal Cancer Diagnosed?

If your doctor thinks you have a problem with your nasopharynx, she’ll do an exam to see how your brain and spinal cord are working. You may also have a blood test for a virus that’s linked to an illness called Epstein-Barr. For oropharyngeal issues, she may check for HPV. Other tests might include an endoscopy, laryngoscopy, or nasoscopy, when a tube is put through your nose to get a closer look.

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monoclonal antibodies attacking cancer cell
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Treatment for Pharyngeal Cancer

Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are the standard treatments, no matter which part of your pharynx is affected. For oropharyngeal cases, you might get targeted therapy that uses something called monoclonal antibodies. These are made in the lab from immune system cells and put into your body to attack cancer cells.

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carcinoma in nasal cavity
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Type: Nasal Cavity Cancer

Cancer cells can grow in the tissue behind your nose (the nasal cavity) and the hollow areas in the bones near it, called the paranasal sinuses. Symptoms include constant congestion, sinus infections that don’t get better with treatment, headaches, swollen eyes, and problems with your sense of smell.

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nasoscopy procedure
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Diagnosing, Treating Nasal Cavity Cancer

You may have a nasoscopy to look for abnormal areas. Your doctor may also do what’s called a fine-needle aspiration (or FNA) biopsy to take some fluid or tissue to check under a microscope. X-rays and an MRI to get a closer look at the area might also help diagnose your condition. As with other types of head and neck cancers, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are standard treatments.

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salivary gland tumor
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Type: Salivary Gland Cancer

Found in the floor of your mouth and near your jawbone, these make saliva. Symptoms of this type of cancer include pain, numbness, or weakness in your face. You also may have trouble swallowing or opening your mouth wide. Fluid that drains from your ear is another sign. This condition is linked to exposure to radiation -- as a treatment for an earlier cancer, for example.

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examining tissue sample with microscope
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Salivary Gland Cancer Diagnosis

Your doctor will use a needle or tiny cut to take out a small part of the problem area and look at it under a microscope to make sure it’s cancer. If possible, he might take out the entire tumor.

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woman receiving radiation therapy
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Treatment for Salivary Gland Cancer

Surgery and chemotherapy are the standard treatments, but the kind of radiation your doctor uses may depend on where the cancer is and how far it’s progressed. Fast neutron therapy uses high-energy radiation. This lets you have fewer appointments. Photon beam radiation, used on deep tumors, involves X-rays. And internal radiation therapy puts radioactive seeds or wires inside you near the cancer to kill the harmful cells.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 2/26/2017 Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on February 26, 2017

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:

1) Biophoto Associates / Science Source

2) AlexRaths / Thinkstock

3) Bunyos / Thinkstock

4) Clinical Photography, Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, UK / Science Source

5) DenGuy / Getty Images

6) Dr P. Marazzi / Science Source

7) Living Art Enterprises / Science Source

8) ISM / Alain POL / Medical Images

9) Nattapong_Choudram / Thinkstock

10) CNRI / Science Source

11) Jupiterimages / Thinkstock

12) Hybrid Medical Animation / Science Source

13) ISM / SOVEREIGN / Medical Images

14) alexey_ds / Getty Images

15) BIOPHOTO ASSOCIATES / Getty Images

16) ZeynepOzy / Thinkstock

17) Mark Kostich / Getty Images

 

SOURCES:

Head and Neck Cancer Alliance: “What Are Cancers of the Head and Neck?”

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “Head and Neck Cancers.”

NIH National Cancer Institute: “Head and Neck Cancers.“

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on February 26, 2017

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.