Oral, head and neck cancer is a broad term that describes many different cancers that start in the head and neck. Most oral, head and neck cancers begin in the cells that make up the moist tissues (mucosal surfaces) of the mouth, nose and throat. Like other cancers, these cancers occur when abnormal cells begin to grow and divide uncontrollably and form a mass, called a malignant tumor.
Doctors identify oral, head and neck cancers by the area in which the cancer begins:
Lip and oral cavity cancer occurs on the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the lining of the cheeks and lips, the floor of the mouth under the tongue, the palate, and the area behind the wisdom teeth. Salivary gland cancer occurs in the glands that produce saliva, located in front of and just below each ear (parotid glands), under the tongue in the floor of the mouth (sublingual glands) and below the jawbone (submandibular glands). Paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer occurs in the small, air-filled pockets in the bones around the nose and in the nasal cavity, the passageway from the nose to the throat. Nasopharyngeal, oropharyngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers occur in the pharynx, an approximately 5-inch long hollow tube that leads from the nose to the esophagus and the trachea. Laryngeal cancer occurs in the larynx, also called the voice box. The larynx includes the vocal cords and the epiglottis, a piece of tissue that moves to cover the trachea (windpipe) during swallowing. Note: Cancers of the brain, eye, thyroid, as well as the skin, bones, muscles and nerves of the head and neck are not included under the heading of "oral, head and neck" cancer.
What's My Risk of Getting Oral, Head or Neck Cancer?
People who have the following characteristics may be at increased risk of developing oral, head or neck cancers:
Age 50 or older
Heavy use of alcohol
Use of tobacco, including smokeless tobacco
The National Cancer Institute estimates that 85 percent of oral, head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk than those who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.
Individual types of oral, head and neck cancers also have specific risk factors:
Lip and oral cavity cancer: Exposure to sun and, possibly, infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Salivary gland cancer: Radiation to the head and neck from diagnostic X-rays or from treatment for cancer or other conditions. Paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer: Exposure to some industrial materials, including dust from wood or nickel. Use of tobacco and alcohol may play a lesser role than in other oral, head and neck cancers. Nasopharyngeal cancer: Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese. Infection with Epstein-Barr virus, exposure to wood dust, and consumption of some preservatives or salted foods. Oropharyngeal cancer: Potential but not proven risk factors include poor oral hygiene, HPV infection and use of mouthwashes with high alcohol content. Hypopharyngeal cancer: Having a rare disorder called Plummer-Vinson Syndrome, which is also called Paterson-Kelly Syndrome. Laryngeal cancer: Exposure to airborne asbestos particles, especially in the workplace.] Keeping in mind that less serious conditions may cause symptoms similar to those of oral, head or neck cancer, check with your doctor or dentist if you have:
A lump or sore that does not heal, such as on the lip or in the mouth Persistent sore throat
A change in voice or hoarseness
Other symptoms apply to specific types of oral, head and neck cancer:
Lip and oral cavity cancer: White or red patches on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth, swelling in the jaw, unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth. Salivary gland cancer: Swelling around the jawbone or under the chin, numbness in face muscles, persistent pain in the face, chin or neck Paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer: Blocked sinuses that do not clear, sinus infections...
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