This week, April 20-26, marks the 17th annual Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. In 2014, 55,000 Americans will develop cancer of the head and neck. Though 13,000 people will die from this disease, most cases are preventable.
Causes of Oral, Head, & Neck Cancer
Tobacco use is the most common and preventable cause of head and neck cancer. Tobacco products include cigarettes, snuff and chewing tobacco. Switching from smoking to smokeless products only changes the risk of lung cancer to a risk of oral cancer.
Human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted infection, is also a risk factor for head and neck cancer. HPV vaccination is recommended for both males and females.
Signs and Symptoms
Consider some of the following signs and symptoms that you may be at risk.
Lump in the neck: Any lump in the neck persisting more than two weeks should be evaluated by a physician.
Difficulty swallowing: This can be a sign of esophageal cancer if the swallowing pain radiates to the ear. Physician evaluation may include a swallowing x-ray.
Change in the voice: Most cancers in the larynx cause some changes in the voice. Any hoarseness or vocal changes lasting for more than two weeks should be evaluated.
Bleeding in the mouth: If blood is seen in saliva or phlegm for more than a few days, see a doctor.
Changes in the skin’s appearance: Skin changes with pigmented lesions can be a sign of melanoma. Skin ulceration that does not heal may be signs of early skin cancer. Increased ultraviolet exposure at high altitude increases the risk of both melanoma and skin cancer.
What You Can Do
Ninety percent of head and neck cancers arise as a result of prolonged exposure to risk factors such as tobacco and alcohol use. If you regularly use alcohol and tobacco, you should talk to your doctor about ways to reduce your risk.
Not every symptom is due to cancer, but persistent symptoms should be evaluated by a doctor. Cure rates significantly improve with early diagnosis. If you have warning signs of a potential disease, have it checked by your physician.
Dr. Ron Roth is a board certified otolaryngologist — a physician that specializes in ear, nose, and throat issues — at Barton Health. To schedule an appointment with him at Barton’s Ear, Nose & Throat at South Lake Tahoe, call (530) 543-5815.