Oral, Head and Neck Cancer

Oral, head and neck cancer (also known as oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer) refers to tumors in the throat, larynx (voice box), nose, sinuses and mouth. The oral cavity and oropharynx helps you breathe, talk, eat, chew, and swallow, and the presence of cancerous tumors in these areas may interfere with one or more of these processes. While these cancers are more than twice as common in men as in women, they are about equally common across ethnicities1.

Credit: Center for Disease Control

What are the different types of oral, head and neck cancer?

There are several different types of oral, head and neck cancers, which occur in different areas and grow at different rates. Read more about the types of oral, head and neck cancer at: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/oralcavityandoropharyngealcancer/detailedguide/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer-what-is-oral-cavity-cancer

What are some symptoms of oral, head and neck cancer?

Common symptoms may include:

  • A sore in the mouth or throat that doesn’t heal
  • Loose teeth
  • Lump or thickening of the neck, nose, face, jaw, cheek or gums
  • Denture discomfort
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing or moving tongue or jaw
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent coughing
  • Change in voice
  • Ear pain or trouble hearing

How is oral, head and neck cancer diagnosed?

Physical exams for oral, head and neck cancer include a complete mouth, head and neck exam and a check for abnormal lumps or facial and mouth nerve issues and lymph node swelling. This exam will include a dental exam to identify potential tumors.

Biopsy is the removal of a small portion of a potential tumor that is microscopically evaluated for the presence of cancer cells.

Lab/blood tests for oral, head and neck cancer may include testing for the HPV infection, a common cause of oral, head and neck tumors.

Imaging tests for oral, head and neck cancer include chest x-rays, barium x-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, positron emission tomography (PET) scans. These tests help determine how far the cancer may have spread.

What are the stages of oral, head and neck cancer?

The most common system used to describe the extent of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers is the TNM system of the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC). The TNM system for staging describes 3 key pieces of information:

  • T indicates the size of the main (primary) tumor and which, if any, tissues of the oral cavity or oropharynx it has spread to.
  • N describes the extent of spread to nearby (regional) lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small bean- shaped collections of immune system cells to which cancers often spread first.
  • M indicates whether the cancer has spread (metastasized) to other organs of the body. (The most common site of spread is to the lungs. The next most common sites are the liver and bones.)

What are the treatment options for oral, head and neck cancer?

This oral, head and neck cancer treatment information does not outline the particular treatment(s) a patient will receive. Rather, it provides general information about the typical treatments used to treat this cancer.

Primary treatment options:

  • Surgery for oral, head and neck cancer describes several types of operations. Depending on where the cancer is and its stage, these operations include tumor resection, Mohs micrographic surgery, glossectomy, mandibulectomy, maxillectomy, robotic surgery, laryngectomy, neck dissection.
  • Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. This therapy is most often supplied in a clinical trial (a research study) setting for oral, head and neck cancer.
  • Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to kill oral, head and neck cancer cells. This includes three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT) and intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT).

Secondary treatment options:

  • Targeted therapies are drugs that restrict the growth of lung cancer cells and protect healthy cells from damage. For early stage oral, head and neck cancer, targeted therapy is usually combined with radiation therapy. In later stages, it is typically combined with chemotherapy treatments.

What are the major risk factors of oral, head and neck cancer?

  • Age: Oral, head and neck cancer is more common in people over the age of 55.
  • Gender: Men more commonly develop oral, head and neck cancer; this may be due to higher rates of tobacco and alcohol use.
  • Nutrition: Having poor nutrition and/or a vitamin deficiency can lead to oral cancer.
  • Smoking: Smoking raises the risk for developing oral, head and neck cancer. Also, chewing tobacco is linked to an increased risk of oral cavity cancer.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol abuse increases your risk of developing oral, head and neck cancer.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection: Individuals who have developed HPV are at a higher risk for the infection forming into oral, head and neck cancer.
  • Previous treatment: Being exposed to high doses of radiation, particularly in the head or neck region, increases risk.

How is oral, head and neck cancer prevented?

  • Limit smoking and drinking
  • Limit exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light
  • Wear properly fitted dentures
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Avoid HPV infection
  • Treat pre-cancerous growths 
Mikayla D. Williams , BS student, Nursing , The University of Arizona
Michael Principe, MA, Information Resources and Library Science , The University of Arizona
Works Cited: 
American Cancer Society (2014). Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/oralcavityandoropharyngealcancer/index
Works Consulted: 
The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center (2014). Head and Neck/Oral Cancers. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/kimmel_cancer_center/types_cancer/head_neck_oral%...
MD Anderson Cancer Center (2014). Head & Neck Center. https://www.mdanderson.org/patients-family/diagnosis-treatment/care-centers-clin...
American Society of Clinical Oncology (2014). Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer. http://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/oral-and-oropharyngeal-cancer/treatment-optio...
The US Oncology Network (2014). Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer. https://www.usoncology.com/patients/YourJourney/CancerTypes/OralandOropharyngeal...
Cancer Treatment Centers of America (2014). Head and Neck Cancer Information. http://www.cancercenter.com/head-and-neck-cancer/learning/