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Head and Neck Cancer: Five Things You Need to Know

April 06, 2021

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 46,000 people are diagnosed with head and neck cancer in the United States every year. This includes cancers of the tongue, throat, and voice box, affecting vital functions, including swallowing and speaking. April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. Barbara Burtness, MD, Professor of Medicine (Medical Oncology) and the Disease Aligned Research Team Leader of the Head and Neck Cancers program at Yale Cancer Center, said it’s a good time to highlight warning signs, screening and prevention for this potentially deadly disease. Here are five things you need to know about head and neck cancer:

1- What are the symptoms?

“The most common symptoms for head and neck cancer are a non-healing sore on the tongue, difficulty swallowing, throat pain, a painless lump in the neck, hoarseness, coughing up blood and an earache,” said Burtness. “These symptoms may mimic other diseases, so check with your doctor if you have concerns.”

2- What are the risk factors?

“Smokers are at a higher risk for head and neck cancer, even people who have quit smoking. Also, people who use tobacco and drink alcohol have an increased risk for the disease,” said Burtness. “Older people have a higher risk as well as people who have been exposed to HPV (the human papillomavirus).”

3- Is there a vaccine for HPV to prevent head and neck cancer?

“The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved vaccines to prevent HPV-related cancers,” said Burtness. “We strongly recommend that everybody be considered for the HPV vaccination beginning at age 11 for both girls and boys, and now, we’re also recommending young adults up to the age of 46.”

4- Can you be screened for head and neck cancer?

“For screening, a common procedure some people may be familiar with is when you get your annual dental exam, the dentist or hygienist might take a piece of gauge and wrap it around your tongue to examine it and then move your tongue from side to side to check the floor of the mouth and the cheeks to make sure there aren’t any lumps or bumps,” said Burtness. “All adults should be screened every year.”

5- How can you prevent the disease?

“You can help prevent head and neck cancer by stopping smoking, not using tobacco products and limiting alcohol use,” said Burtness. “Reducing your risk of infection from HPV is also an important way to prevent the disease.”

To learn more about head and neck cancer, go to:

Submitted by Anne Doerr on April 06, 2021