Understanding oral, head and neck cancers

March 26, 2022 Swedish Cancer Team

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In this article:

  • More than 100,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral, head and neck cancer every year.

  • 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.

The human papillomavirus is now responsible for the majority of throat cancer, causing more than 12,000 new cases every year and comprising a significant portion of the more than 100,000 diagnoses of oral, head and neck cancers annually, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery. These cancers start in the cells that line your mouth, throat, lips, nose, voice box, or salivary glands. If caught in their initial stages, oral, head, and neck cancers can often be treated successfully.

April is Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, so we are spotlighting these cancers and increasing awareness of what they are and how you can help prevent them. We talked to Medical Director for Head and Neck Endocrine Surgery at Swedish, Joseph Sniezek, M.D., to get answers to some of your most common questions about head, neck and oral cancer.

Q&A with Dr. Sniezek

Q: What are the most common oral, head and neck cancers? 

A: Thyroid cancer is the most common cancer seen in the head and neck, with about 24,000 new cases diagnosed in our country every year. Thyroid cancer is more common in women than men. Research suggests this may be because thyroid nodules are found more often in women, which leads to more diagnostic testing that can reveal cancer’s presence. The hormone estrogen may also play a role in the prevalence of women’s thyroid cancer.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the leading type of cancer of the throat. It mainly affects the tonsils and tongue base. There are about 12,000 new throat cancers related to HPV every year and most of them are found in men. Reports indicate that may be related to the differences in how women and men develop protective antibodies to HPV.

Q: What causes these types of cancers? 

A: Thyroid cancer has been linked to some inherited conditions, but its exact cause is unknown.

HPV has replaced smoking as the most common cause of throat cancers, accounting for roughly 80% of new diagnoses. Anyone sexually active is at increased risk for HPV-related cancer. These tumors now commonly present in patients in their 40s and 50s instead of their 70s, which was more common in past head and neck cancers caused by smoking.

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

Q: What are the warning signs we should watch for?

A: 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.

It’s dangerous to ignore a neck mass or swelling that lingers. Your doctor should evaluate any neck mass that persists for more than two weeks.

Q: Is there anything we can do to prevent these types of cancer? 

A: Don’t smoke. Smoking worsens the outcome of HPV-related head and neck cancers.

The HPV vaccine is the most effective tool in preventing HPV-related cancers and children as young as 12 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. 

Q: Are there any new and innovative diagnosis or treatment options? 

A: 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. 

The patient can see that as well. I think it’s incredibly powerful and helpful for a patient to see and understand what I’m talking about when I’m discussing their health issues.

Q: What’s the prognosis if someone gets an oral, head or neck cancer? Can it be cured? 

A: The good news about HPV-related cancer is that it has much better treatment outcomes than non-HPV-related cancers. Almost 95% of HPV-related cancers will completely respond to treatment. However, if a patient smokes and then develops an HPV-related tumor, the prognosis is not as good as in a non-smoker.

I’ve had the good fortune to work at many excellent hospitals and Swedish stands out amongst them. We treat one patient at a time and every patient gets the very best of what we have. It’s humbling to fight cancer every day. But when you can pull a patient through and get them through to the other side, it’s absolutely thrilling and the most rewarding thing I can ever imagine.

Find a doctor

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

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. 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 doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources 

Women’s health screening guidelines for every age

Mouth and throat cancer screening

Stay up to date with vaccines

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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