Self-exams can help detect oral, head and neck cancers.

Author: Sherry Farney

Though there is not a comprehensive routine screening for oral, head, and neck cancers, there are several preventative check-ups that can help in detecting cancer in early stages: an annual visit with your primary care physician and a bi-annual dental visit. And then there is you – you can perform self-exams – by checking for any changes in what you know is normal.

“Head and neck cancers are most often caused by alcohol and tobacco use, and the human papilloma virus (HPV),” said Jonathan Waxman, MD, Ph.D., board-certified otolaryngologist at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint. 

According to the American Cancer Society, head and neck cancers generally begin forming in the cells that line the nose, mouth, or throat. Cancers that start in these cells are called carcinoma. The different types of cancers in the head and neck region are oral cavity, oropharyngeal, nasal cavity, paranasal sinus, nasopharyngeal (behind the nose), laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers.

Head and neck cancer accounts for about 4% of all cancers in the United States. In 2022, an estimated 66,630 people (48,740 men and 17,890 women) will develop head and neck cancer.

HPV and Throat Cancer

There is a strong link between HPV and head and neck cancers. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 16,200 men and 3,500 women are diagnosed with HPV-related oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (generally considered throat cancer) each year in the U.S. This means that oropharyngeal cancer has surpassed cervical cancer as the most prevalent disease related to HPV infection.

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that affects tens of millions of Americans every year. The CDC states that nearly every sexually active man and woman will be diagnosed with HPV sometime in their lives. More than 100 HPV subtypes infect humans, with 20 to 40 subtypes that may cause cancer.

Luckily, there is a vaccine to prevent HPV. The HPV vaccine, also known as Gardasil®, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006 to prevent cervical cancer linked to HPV. In 2018, the FDA approved a supplemental application for Gardasil 9, expanding the vaccine's approved use to include women and men aged 27 through 45 years. Gardasil 9 prevents certain cancers and diseases caused by the nine HPV types covered by the vaccine, including oropharyngeal cancer.

“When it’s [oropharyngeal cancer] related to the HPV virus, it’s very treatable. We see very good outcomes,” said Dr. Waxman.

Signs and Symptoms of Oral, Head and Neck Cancers

Signs and symptoms of oral, head and neck cancers vary for each patient. If you notice any of the following, you should see a physician:

  • A sore in the mouth that does not heal
  • Pain in the mouth, neck or throat
  • A lump or mass
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
  • A persistent sore throat
  • Blocked sinuses that do not clear, or sinus infections that do not go away
  • Nose bleeds
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • Pain while swallowing or ear pain
  • Trouble moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness, paralysis, or pain in the face, chin, or neck
  • Swelling around the jaw or under the chin
  • Loosening of the teeth or pain around the teeth or jaw
  • Frequent headaches
  • Voice changes
  • Constant bad breath
  • Swelling or issues with your eyes

Anyone who has these symptoms should schedule a visit with an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

For more information on oral, head and neck cancer treatment in Flint, or to schedule a consultation with Dr. Waxman, visit karmanos.org/flinthncancer.