Head and Neck Cancer

Head and Neck Cancer Awareness and Risk Reduction

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Head and neck cancer is associated with a number of risk factors, many of which can be avoided. At UT Southwestern Medical Center, we’re focused on head and neck cancer awareness and risk reduction. Early detection is key to successful treatment.

Risk Factors of Head and Neck Cancer

Risk factors for head and neck cancer vary based on the location and type of cancer; they include:

  • Tobacco use: Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes or using smokeless tobacco puts people at greater risk for head and neck cancer. These cancers are rare in people who have never used tobacco.
  • Alcohol consumption: Heavy use of alcohol raises a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases the risk even more.
  • Poor nutrition: A diet low in vitamins A and B can raise the risk of head and neck cancer.
  • Prolonged sun exposure: This factor puts a person at greater risk for skin cancer of the head and neck.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV): HPV is becoming an increasingly common risk factor for some types of head and neck cancer.
  • Poor oral hygiene: Those who don’t take care of their teeth and gums are at an increased risk of head and neck cancer.
  • Epstein-Barr virus: The virus that causes mononucleosis plays a role in the development of some types of head and neck cancer.

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer

Symptoms of head and neck cancer depend on where the cancer develops and how it spreads. In general, symptoms might include:

  • A lump or swelling in the nose, neck, or throat
  • A sore throat that won’t go away
  • Trouble or pain when swallowing
  • A change or hoarseness in the voice
  • A sore or growth in the mouth
  • Persistent earache

Reducing the Risk of Head and Neck Cancer

While head and neck cancer might not be completely preventable, people can significantly lower their risk by taking certain steps. These include:

  • Not smoking
  • Avoiding alcohol abuse
  • Eating a well-balanced diet
  • Using sunscreen and lip balm regularly
  • Practicing protected sex
  • Maintaining good oral hygiene

Quitting tobacco products decreases the risk of head and neck cancer, even if a person has been smoking or using them for many years. UT Southwestern offers a nicotine cessation program to help patients quit in a supportive environment at no cost.

HPV infection is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancer, and early evidence suggests that HPV vaccines such as Gardasil prevent oral HPV infections.

Risk Reduction for People at High Risk

It’s important that high-risk people, especially those who use tobacco, talk to their doctor about reducing their risk and how frequently they should have checkups.

Additionally, various medications to prevent head and neck cancers in high-risk people are currently being tested in clinical trials. For more information about these clinical trials, visit the National Cancer Institute website or speak with an information specialist from NCI’s Cancer Information Service (CIS) by calling 800-4-CANCER (800-422-6237).