Head and neck cancers are a group of cancers that arise in the mouth or throat area. Prevention or early detection of these cancers can literally save your life.
When found early, precancerous lesions or small cancers can simply be removed, eliminating any health risk to the patient. When diagnosed at a later stage, after the tumor has grown larger, these cancers require much more aggressive treatment and may still be fatal.
That is why April is National Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, to promote awareness and help save lives through prevention and early detection.
Historically these cancers have been associated with smoking or oral tobacco use, and much of the public, especially non-smokers, has assumed they are not at risk.
Non-smokers at risk
University of Colorado Health’s cancer program in northern Colorado has reviewed regional statistics and confirmed that in 2012 the majority of newly diagnosed head and neck cancers were found in non-smokers.
This finding is consistent with national trends demonstrating that the fastest growing segment of head and neck cancers is associated with the human papillomavirus and unrelated to smoking or tobacco use.
So what can you do about this?
Minimize your risk. Avoid smoking or oral tobacco use. If you drink alcohol, use moderation. Maintain good oral hygiene. See your dentist and primary care provider regularly to talk about healthy strategies to reduce your risk and screenings for head and neck cancer.
Screening is generally fast, non-invasive, and typically involves a simple look around your mouth and neck area. The American Dental Association recommends screening at all routine dental visits or more often if indicated.
Get screened before you have symptoms and report any of the following signs or symptoms to your doctor as soon as possible:
- Any new or painful lesion (typically a white or red patch, or ulceration) on the lips, tongue, gums, or throat area.
- Persistent oral pain or bleeding.
- Persistent ear pain.
- Persistent sore throat.
- Persistent voice changes or difficulty speaking clearly.
- Unexplained weight loss or fatigue.
- Trouble swallowing foods or liquids.
- Enlarged lymph nodes or lumps in your neck area.
- Swelling in mouth or throat, which may cause dentures to fit poorly.
As a doctor who treats head and neck cancers every day, I can tell you that the best strategy is to prevent them or find them early when treatment is relatively minimal. UCHealth has many new treatments available for those with more advanced cancers. However, my sincere hope is that through healthy living and proactive medical care you will never need them.