Understanding Head and Neck Cancer

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From the desk of Beth Battaglino, RN, CEO, HealthyWomen

Head and neck cancer is a catch-all term that includes cancers of the lips, mouth, voice box, throat and salivary glands. When caught early, these cancers have a very good prognosis, with five-year survival rates of 70% to 90% with treatment. Unfortunately, most cases aren’t diagnosed until they’ve reached a later stage, making treatment much less effective.

You may wonder, if treatment works so well for early-stage head and neck cancer, why aren’t more people diagnosed before their cancer advances?

HealthyWomen’s new education program explores what’s stopping people from getting care sooner. We know racial and socioeconomic disparities can be a barrier. We also know that the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in people skipping preventive care and routine screenings. What’s more, head and neck cancer caused by HPV may carry stigmas that make people less likely to bring up symptoms with their healthcare providers.

And, because head and neck cancer includes several types of cancer, symptoms of these cancers are many and varied. Some of the most common ones, such as a chronic sore throat or hoarse voice, can be mistaken for a sign of something else, like a cold.

As Lisa Reed told HealthyWomen, “I knew there was something more to the lump I felt in my throat. But it still took 2 1/2 months in 2007 and several visits to an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) to convince her to look harder and deeper at my symptoms. Eventually, the ENT did an endoscopy and found a finger-like growth in the back of my throat. After a biopsy the next morning, I heard the dreaded news: It was cancer.”

While receiving a head and neck cancer diagnosis is overwhelming, what you or a loved one does next is critical. Dr. Eleni Rettig, a head and neck surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School, shares the questions you should ask your healthcare provider. We also help you understand your risk factors and the different types of head and neck cancers — and we offer advice on symptoms, early screenings and treatment options.

For Susan Decker McLaughlin, it started with a swollen lymph node, a small painless bump on the left side under her jawbone and back molars. After receiving her diagnosis, she explained, “I was scared and shocked: I’d never heard of salivary cancer before, and there was no known cause.”

Susan added, “This journey has taught me that I can’t be afraid to speak up when something doesn’t feel right. Doctors might know more about medical conditions, but they don’t know your body better than you do. If you’re not feeling well, trust yourself — and then fight as hard as you can to get the care you deserve.”

My greatest hope is that you take this important advice, and like Susan, become your own best advocate.

In good health,
Beth Battaglino

This resource was created with support from Merck.

Coping With the Emotional Impact of Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer isn’t just physically taxing — it can significantly hurt your mental health. Here’s how to take care of yourself.

What Is the Link Between HPV & Head and Neck Cancers?

HPV can cause head and neck cancer

Ending the Stigma Around Cancers Caused by HPV

HPV causes head and neck cancers, among others. What can we do to end the stigma around these illnesses?

Poniéndole fin al estigma alrededor de los cánceres producidos por el VPH

El VPH produce cánceres de cabeza y cuello, entre otros. ¿Qué podemos hacer para terminar con el estigma en torno a estas enfermedades?

Barriers to Care: Head and Neck Cancer

From getting a diagnosis to finding care, head and neck cancer can be difficult to manage

Obstáculos de la atención médica: Cáncer de cabeza y cuello

Obtener un diagnóstico o atención para el cáncer de cabeza y cuello puede ser algo difícil de manejar.

Genomics, mutations, and treatment options for Head & Neck Cancer

Studying genetic changes in cancer cells may be helpful in developing better treatments for head and neck cancer

Opciones de tratamiento para el cáncer de cabeza y cuello

El estudio de los cambios genéticos en las células cancerosas puede ser útil para desarrollar mejores tratamientos para el cáncer de cabeza y cuello

Fast Facts: What You Need to Know About Head and Neck Cancer

Learn about the symptoms, how it’s diagnosed and ways to reduce your risk

Información resumida: Qué debe saber sobre el cáncer de cabeza y cuello

Aprenda sobre los síntomas, formas de diagnóstico y cómo reducir su riesgo

Being My Own Advocate Helped Me Defeat Tonsil Cancer

How I listened to my own body and followed my heart

A Rare Head and Neck Cancer Taught Me How to Be My Best Advocate

My journey with mucoepidermoid carcinoma taught me the importance of trusting myself

Clinically Speaking: Questions to Ask Your Healthcare Provider About Head and Neck Cancer

If you’ve received a head and neck cancer diagnosis, here are some important questions to ask your healthcare provider.

Head and Neck Cancer Resource List

Head and neck cancers arise in the larynx, throat, lips, mouth, nose, and salivary glands. There are several factors that increase the risk of these cancers and screening measures that are important for prevention. For more information, be sure to contact your healthcare provider and visit the links provided below.

HealthyWomen Resources

From the Desk of Beth: Understanding Head and Neck CancerEnding the Stigma Around Cancers Caused by HPVBarriers to Care: Head and Neck CancerClinically Speaking: Questions to ask your healthcare provider about head and neck cancerGenomics, mutations and treatment options for head and neck cancerFast Facts: What you need to know about head and neck cancerBeing my own advocate helped me defeat tonsil cancerA rare head and neck cancer taught me how to be my best advocateWatch Your Mouth: Don’t Forget Your Dental Health During the Pandemic More Reason to Talk About Weight

En Español

Poniéndole fin al estigma alrededor de los cánceres producidos por el VPHObstáculos de la atención médica: Cáncer de cabeza y cuelloOpciones de tratamiento para el cáncer de cabeza y cuelloInformación resumida: Qué debe saber sobre el cáncer de cabeza y cuello

Additional Resources

National Cancer Institute: Head and Neck CancersHead and Neck Cancer AllianceCancer.net | Head and Neck Cancer: Questions to Ask the Health Care Team