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Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancers are the 8th most common cancer with 12,200 new cases diagnosed in the UK every year which represents 3% of all new cancer cases.

There are more than 30 areas in the head and neck where cancers can occur but the most common include:-

  • The mouth and lips
  • The voice box (larynx)
  • The throat (Pharynx)
  • The salivary glands
  • The nose and sinuses
  • The area at the back of the nose and the mouth (Nasopharynx)

Cancers that do not fall under the collective term of head and neck cancer include:-

  • Oesophageal
  • Thyroid
  • Brain tumours
  • Cancer of the eye

Cancers of the head and neck usually begin in the squamous cells that line the moist, musical surfaces inside the head and neck such as inside the mouth, nose and throat. These are often referred to as ‘squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck’.

As with many cancers, alcohol consumption and tobacco use appear to increase the risk of head and neck cancer. In fact, 75% of these types of cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol alone. In addition to this, preserved or salted foods and poor oral health have been found to significantly contribute to causing these cancers.

Mouth Cancer

Mouth cancer is one of the most common types of head and neck cancer affecting the lips, tongue, inside of the cheeks, gums and the floor or roof of the mouth. It is the 6th most common cancer in the world but much less common in the UK with 8,300 new cases being diagnosed every year which is 1 in every 50 cancers diagnosed. Mouth cancer mostly occurs in people aged over 55 and is more likely in men than women.

It is categorised by the type of cell that the cancer starts in with squamous cell carcinoma being the most common type of mouth cancer accounting for 9 in 10 cases. These cells are found in many places around the body including inside the mouth and skin.

Other, less common types of mouth cancers include:-

  • Adenocarcinomas-cancer developed in the salivary gland
  • Sarcomas-cancers that grow from abnormalities in the bone, cartilage and muscle
  • Oral malignant melanomas-cancer that starts in the cells that produce skin pigment
  • Lymphomas-cancers that begin in the lymph glands but can develop in the mouth

Symptoms:

  • Sore mouth ulcers that do not heal
  • Unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or neck
  • Unexplained looseness of teeth
  • Numbness or an odd feeling of the lips and tongue
  • Changes in speech

As with most cancers, early detection is vital and an early detection can lead to a complete cure in up to 90% of cases using surgery alone. Even with a later diagnosis, 60% of patients live for at least 5 years or more.

Symptoms:

  • Sore mouth ulcers that do not heal
  • Unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or neck
  • Unexplained looseness of teeth
  • Numbness or an odd feeling of the lips and tongue
  • Changes in speech

As with most cancers, early detection is vital and an early detection can lead to a complete cure in up to 90% of cases using surgery alone. Even with a later diagnosis, 60% of patients live for at least 5 years or more.

Laryngeal cancer

Laryngeal cancer is cancer that affects the larynx (voice box). It is the part of the throat that is found at the entrance of the windpipe (the trachea), helping you to breathe and speak. It is reported that 2,000 new cases are diagnosed every year in the UK.

It is also 4 times more common in men than women and mostly occurs in individuals aged over 60.

Symptoms:

  • A change in the voice such as persistent hoarseness
  • Difficulty or pain swallowing
  • Noisy breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • An unexplained, persistent cough
  • Lump or swelling present in the neck

As with most cancers, smoking and drinking are thought to increase the risk of getting laryngeal cancer, as well as a bad, fatty diet.

It is held that 70% of patients diagnosed with this type of cancer live for at least 5 years after diagnosis and 60% live at least 10 years after diagnosis.

Throat cancer (Pharynx)

Doctors do not tend to use the word ‘throat cancer’ as this term is very broad and includes many different parts of the throat that can be affected.

These include:-

  • The oropharynx – located at the back of the mouth
  • The hypopharynx – connects the oropharynx to the gullet and the windpipe
  • The nasopharynx – connects the nose to the back of the mouth

Symptoms:

The symptoms of throat cancer are often typical of those associated with laryngeal cancer, specifically a lump in the neck, difficulty swallowing or a sore throat.

Salivary gland cancer

The salivary glands produce saliva which keeps the mouth moist and helps with swallowing and the digestion of food. There are 3 main pairs:-

  • Parotid-concerning the cheeks and ears
  • Sublingual-concerning the area under the tongue
  • Submandibular-relating to each side of the jaw bone

Symptoms:

Symptoms include swelling or lumps present in the above areas, although most lumps found usually turn out to be benign (non-cancerous). In other cases, numbness may occur or the face may start to droop.

Nose and Sinus cancer

These cancers affect the nasal cavity above the roof of the mouth or the sinuses which are small, air-filled cavities inside the bones of the nose, within the cheek bones and the forehead. This cancer is perhaps one of the most rare types of head and neck cancers and usually affects men aged 50-60.

Symptoms:

Unfortunately, this type of cancer can be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms are similar to viral or bacterial infections such as the common cold or sinusitis including:-

  • A persistent blocked nose that affects one side
  • Nose bleeds
  • A decreased sense of smell
  • Mucus running from the nose

Cancer in more advanced stages may present symptoms of:-

  • Pain or numbness in the face
  • Swollen neck glands
  • Partial loss of vision or double vision
  • A bulging or persistent watery eye
  • A lump on the face, nose or roof the mouth

Nasopharyngeal cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer affects the part of the throat that connects the back of the nose to the back of the mouth. It is one of the rarest types of head and neck cancers in the UK with only 250 people being diagnosed annually. This type of cancer is not to be confused with other types that affect the throat such as laryngeal and oesophageal.

Symptoms:

Again, the symptoms can be hard to detect as they relate closely to other less serious conditions. In addition to this, many people do not present any symptoms until the cancer reaches an advanced stage.

Causes:

The main cause of nasopharyngeal cancer is unknown but factors that could increase the risk are:-

  • Being of Chinese or North African descent
  • Having a diet high in salt-cured meats and fish
  • Being exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a common virus that causes glandular fever
  • A job regularly exposing you to hardwood dust
  • A first degree relative (parent) who has had the cancer

This cancer is 3 times more common in men than women and the average age of diagnosis is 50.

Our Medical Negligence team deals with cases of all types and complexity. Medical Negligence can apply to many conditions but people often refer to it in the context of ‘operations gone wrong’. Such a narrow term does not even begin to cover how many situations come under the banner of Medical Negligence.

We can work with those representing the potential defendants to achieve a settlement and compensation for you as quickly as possible.

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