April is National Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month and according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology (Head and Neck Surgery), each year, more than 55,000 Americans will develop cancer of the head and neck (most of which is preventable) and nearly 13,000 of them will die from it.

Head and neck cancer is a term used to describe a number of different cancerous tumors that develop in or around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, and mouth.  These cancers typically begin in the squamous cells that line the moist surfaces inside the mouth, nose and throat.

Tobacco use is the most preventable cause of head and neck cancer.  In the U.S., up to 200,000 people die each year from smoking-related illnesses.  The good news is that this figure has decreased due to the increasing number of Americans who have quit smoking.  The bad news is that some of these smokers switched to smokeless or spit tobacco, assuming it is a safe alternative.  By doing so, they are only changing the site of the cancer risk from their lungs to their mouths.  While lung cancer cases are decreasing, cancers in the head and neck appear to be increasing.  

Fortunately, most head and neck cancers produce early symptoms.  Below are some potential warning signs of head and neck cancer.  If you experience any of these symptoms, you should alert your doctor as soon as possible. 

There are several head and neck cancer symptoms, including:

- Lump, bump, or mass in the head or neck area, with or without pain

- Persistent sore throat

- Hoarseness or change in voice

- Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion

- Frequent nose bleeds and/or unusual nasal discharge

- Blood in the saliva or phlegm

- Ear and/or jaw pain

Many cancers of the head and neck can be cured, especially if they are found early.  Although eliminating the cancer is the primary goal of treatment, preserving the function of the nearby nerves, organs, and tissues is also very important.  When planning treatment, doctors consider how treatment might affect a person’s quality of life, such as how a person feels, looks, talks, eats, and breathes.  Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, possible side effects, and the patient’s preferences and overall health.

At MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, the mission of the MUSC Head and Neck Tumor Center is to provide the most comprehensive, advanced, and compassionate care to each patient, while pursuing future goals of the control of head and neck cancer through research.  The Head and Neck Tumor Program prides itself on innovative care for each patient and family member.  With a team of more than 30 specialists prepared to provide input into every aspect of the needs of head and neck tumor patients, the program offers the most up-to-date treatment and rehabilitative options.  High quality care is enhanced by constant interaction between Head and Neck Tumor Center physicians and researchers.  This collaboration benefits all patients, including those with difficult cases.

For more information about head and neck cancer, or any of the conditions treated at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, please click here