It used to be that alcohol and tobacco use were the main risk factors for head and neck cancers.
While that’s still true, a growing number of these cancers are now being attributed to the human papillomavirus (HPV).
“One of the more disturbing trends we are seeing is the increase in cancer of the tonsil area among people who don’t smoke or drink alcohol,” said Dr. Timothy Boyle, a Marshfield Clinic Health System otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon. “These cancers used to be attributed to alcohol and tobacco, but they are increasingly associated with HPV, a virus spread primarily by intimate contact.”
Head and neck cancer is a general term applied to cancers of the mouth (lip and tongue), larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), salivary glands, lymph nodes and nose/nasal passages. April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, making it a great time to remember screening for these cancers.
Cancer screening helps with early detection
“Early detection is very important for treating these cancers,” Boyle said. “Survival is almost entirely based on the stage of the tumor. The smaller and more localized cancers that haven’t spread are the easiest to cure.”
Marshfield Clinic otolaryngologists, also known as ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialists, perform screening tests for head and neck cancers in every patient they see. They look for early signs of oral cavity and throat cancers, even if the patient is only in for a sinus infection or a sore throat.
“We also examine the skin in the head and neck area, a really common place for skin cancers,” Boyle said. “Other worrisome symptoms are a sore throat that doesn’t go away, unexplained bleeding or spitting out blood, any change in voice or difficulty swallowing.”
For small tumors, doctors can often surgically remove them. Larger cancers usually require radiation therapy and chemotherapy in combination with surgery.
When such treatments are required, they can change the patient’s ability to chew, swallow or talk and their appearance may change. It’s best to detect head and neck cancers as soon as possible to prevent these unwelcome side effects.
Read our post on getting your HPV vaccine to help prevent future cancer risks.