Signs and Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer

Executive Summary

Head and neck cancer is diagnosed based on its symptoms. The most common symptoms of head and neck cancer include the presence of a sore or swelling that doesn’t heal, presence of a lump, bump or mass in the neck and head region, sore throat, and presence of white or red patches in the throat or mouth, difficulty or pain while chewing, swallowing, or moving the tongue or jaw.

There are various other symptoms such as foul smell from the mouth, breathing difficulties, unexplained or sudden weight loss, severe or moderate pain in the neck and jaw, and experiencing weakness or numbness in the body parts of the neck and head region. The change in voice or hoarseness can also signify head and neck cancer. The problems with vision, extreme fatigue, presence of blood in saliva or phlegm can indicate a potentially cancerous growth in the head or neck region. Loosening of teeth for no specific reason, people with some form of head or neck cancer will find their dentures no longer fitting, and shooting pain in the ear or hearing loss.

Signs and Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer

Cancer in the head and neck regions is a common form of cancer worldwide. The cancerous growth can occur in the oral cavity, pharynx/throat, larynx/voice box, salivary glands, nasal cavity, as well as in the muscles and nerves of the head and neck region.

Head and neck cancer will display a range of signs and symptoms. However, the signs and symptoms may vary, based on the affected area. Some people experience signs and symptoms, whereas some others do not. Sometimes these symptoms may indicate some other medical condition and not cancer. Hence, people should consult a doctor or dentist to get the correct diagnosis when the symptoms are experienced.

The following are the general signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer ​1​:

  • The most common symptom is the presence of a sore or swelling that doesn’t heal. It can be a mouth ulcer, i.e., a broken area of skin inside the mouth that may not heal. It can indicate oral or mouth cancer.
  • Presence of lump, bump or mass in the neck and head region. It can appear in the back of the neck, mouth, lips or jaw. The lesion or tumour mass may be painful or painless. A lump or mass in the neck region can be indicating thyroid cancer. Sometimes, the lump or swelling may result from an enlarged or swollen lymph node. And this is a common sign of mouth and salivary gland cancer. But some lumps or masses may not be cancerous. Those bumps which appear and disappear are usually not cancerous. Cancerous lumps typically grow at a languid pace.
  • Sore throat is another common sign of cancer in the neck and head region. A sore throat can cause pain and discomfort, and usually, in the case of cancer, the soreness doesn’t heal away that easily; it will continue to persist, causing more problems. 
  • Presence of White or red patches in the throat or mouth. If you find an abnormal patch in the mouth or throat, it can signify cancer. These patches would be a result of precancerous changes. Such red patches are generally called erythroplakia, and white ones are leukoplakia. Sometimes they may not be cancerous. But it’s always better to seek treatment as and when it occurs, as sometimes if left untreated, it can become cancerous. A fungal infection called oral thrush can also cause similar white and red patches.
  • Difficulty or pain while chewing, swallowing, or moving the tongue or jaw. Burning sensation or pain while chewing and swallowing food is another common symptom of head and neck cancer. One may find it difficult to eat food or feel stuck in the throat. Sometimes it can go into the windpipe and cause a cough.
  • Change in voice or hoarseness can signify head and neck cancer. Some people will experience problems with their speech- in pronouncing some sounds or words. Their sound may appear husky or quieter. It may sound like they are having a cold all the time.
  • A foul smell from the mouth is another sign of neck and head cancer. The odor may not be a result of bad oral hygiene. People should look for such symptoms and get the correct diagnosis as fast as possible.
  • Breathing difficulties can occur due to any cancerous neck or head region growth. Some people experience nasal congestion, which may signify cancer in the sinuses. Throat cancer also affects breathing. Some people may even experience severe nose bleeding or nasal congestion continuously. Unusual nasal discharge is also a symptom of head and neck cancer. Chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment may also indicate a probable head and neck cancer.
  • Unexplained or sudden weight loss is another sign. Since people with most forms of head and neck find it extremely difficult to chew and swallow food, they will undergo sudden weight loss. 
  • Severe or moderate pain in the neck and jaw. Thyroid cancer can cause small lumps or swellings, generally painless, called thyroid nodules, to appear in the front of the neck.
  • Experiencing weakness or numbness in the body parts of the neck and head region. Salivary gland cancer or mouth cancer can cause weakness or pain in the face region.
  • Problems with vision. Head and neck cancers can cause double vision or problems with sight.
  • Extreme fatigue
  • The presence of blood in saliva or phlegm can indicate a potentially cancerous growth in the head or neck region.
  • Loosening of teeth for no specific reason.
  • People with some form of head or neck cancer will find their dentures no longer fitting.
  • Shooting pain in the ear or hearing loss is another sign to look for. This may indicate throat cancer. Sometimes people will experience a ringing sound in their ears. Infections in the ear are also a sign of tumor growth.

The signs and symptoms of a possible head and neck cancer resemble many other disease conditions ​2​. Hence, if you are concerned with any changes in your body, it is always best to consult a doctor, speak out your doubts, and get them cleared. Communicate all the symptoms you are experiencing, which will help diagnose your problem accurately.

If upon diagnosis, cancer is detected, managing and relieving symptoms form an essential part of cancer treatment and care. This step is called supportive or palliative care. This is started soon after diagnosis and will be continued throughout the treatment course. Patients are encouraged to talk openly about any signs or symptoms they are experiencing, even any new changes or symptoms.

References

  1. 1.
    Gilyoma JM, Rambau PF, Masalu N, Kayange NM, Chalya PL. Head and neck cancers: a clinico-pathological profile and management challenges in a resource-limited setting. BMC Res Notes. Published online December 2015. doi:10.1186/s13104-015-1773-9
  2. 2.
    Dolan RW MD, FACS, Vaughan CW MD, FACS,, Nabil F MD. Symptoms in early head and neck cancer: An inadequate indicator. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. Published online November 1998:463-467. doi:10.1016/s0194-5998(98)70102-0