Understanding oral, head and neck cancers

April 24, 2023 Swedish Cancer Team


In this article:

  • Nearly 65,000 people are diagnosed with oral, head and neck cancer every year. Early detection increases their chances of a successful outcome.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) has replaced smoking as the leading cause of throat cancer.

  • Thyroid cancer affects more women than men, while men are more commonly diagnosed with throat cancer than women.

Does your wellness routine include head and neck self-exams to check for oral, head and neck cancer? If not, you could be ignoring one of the most effective forms of cancer care – early detection.

Nearly 65,000 people a year are diagnosed with oral, head and neck cancer, according to the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance. The earlier the cancer is detected, the better the chances of a successful outcome.

April is Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. We talked to Medical Director for Head and Neck Endocrine Surgery at Swedish, Joseph Sniezek, M.D. about this potentially life-threatening but treatable cancer. Here’s what he shared.

Common oral, head and neck cancers 

“Oral, head and neck cancers originate in the mouth, voice box, throat, nasal cavity or salivary glands. Most oral cancers are found on your tongue, the floor of your mouth or your gums,” explains Dr. Sniezek.

“Thyroid cancer is the most common cancer seen in the head and neck. About 24,000 new cases are diagnosed in our country annually," says Dr. Sniezek. “Women get thyroid cancer more often than men, which could result from earlier testing and diagnosis. Estrogen may also play a role.”

“Squamous cell carcinoma is the leading type of throat cancer. It affects your tonsils and tongue base. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is responsible for the majority of throat cancer, with nearly 70% of all cases attributed to HPV infection,” he adds.

Who is at risk? 

HPV is the most common cause of throat cancers, accounting for roughly 80% of new diagnoses. And if you’re sexually active, you’re at increased risk for HPV-related cancer,” says Dr. Sniezek.

Other factors that can increase your risk of oral, head and neck cancer include:

  • Smoking and tobacco use
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Occupational exposure, such as exposure to asbestos and other toxic substances
  • Radiation exposure

Know the warning signs 

“The most common sign of throat and thyroid cancers is often a lump or mass in the neck. Persistent sore throats or ear pain can also be potential throat cancer warning signs,” says Dr. Sniezek. “It’s dangerous to ignore a neck mass or swelling that lingers. See your physician if you have a neck mass that persists for more than two weeks.”

Other warning signs and symptoms include:

  • A white or red spot in your mouth that increases in size or doesn’t heal
  • Swollen tonsils
  •  Sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Changes in your voice

Reduce your risk

You can take steps to reduce your risk of oral, head and neck cancer.

“Don’t smoke. Smoking worsens the outcome of HPV-related head and neck cancers,” says Dr. Sniezek.

“Get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine is the most effective tool in preventing HPV-related cancers and children as young as 12 and adults up to age 45 can now receive it. The vaccine is most effective when delivered before beginning sexual activity. It has the potential to drastically reduce the incidence of throat cancer in the next few decades,” he adds.

Self-exams save lives

When you detect cancer in its earliest stages, you significantly increase your odds of successful treatment. A monthly head and neck self-exam can help you identify any changes as they occur and let you know when it’s time to call your physician.

Follow these steps to examine your head, neck and mouth for abnormal, discolored or irregular areas:

  • Use a bright light and a mirror to improve visibility.
  • Carefully examine your teeth, gums and inside surfaces of your mouth. Pull your cheeks out and tilt your head back to view hidden areas.
  • Look for white or red patches, chronic sores or swelling.
  • Feel for lumps, enlarged lymph nodes or irregular surfaces.

Improving care with advanced technology 

The use of ultrasound in evaluating thyroid and neck masses has been very helpful in diagnosing early neck tumors. No radiation is involved, and a clinician can perform the procedure during an office examination.

“The newest development that's really changed the available care options is the improved head and neck ultrasound technology. I can now use ultrasound in the clinic. It used to be expensive and cumbersome technology. Now the machines are smaller, and the imagery is so sharp and clear that when I place it on a patient’s neck in the clinic, I can truly see what’s happening underneath their skin in real-time,” says Dr. Sniezek.


Learn more and find a provider

If you have questions about oral, head or neck cancers, contact the Swedish Cancer Institute. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Swedish research at the forefront of new advances in heart health

Milestone in procedure to fix leaky hearts

Recognizing a cardiac emergency. What should you do?

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

The Swedish Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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