Fortunately, the majority of head and neck cancer produces early symptoms. This is all the more reason why it is so important to be aware of the potential warning signs so you can alert your doctor as soon as possible. Remember – successful treatment of head and neck cancer depends on early detection. Knowing and recognizing the signs can save your life.
- A lump in the neck: A lump in the neck that lasts more than two weeks should be seen by a physician as soon as possible. Bear in mind, not all lumps are cancer; yet, a lump (or lumps) in the neck can be the first sign of cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box (larynx), thyroid gland, or of certain lymphomas and blood cancers. Such lumps are generally painless and continue to enlarge steadily.
- Change in the voice: Most cancers in the larynx cause some changes in one’s voice. An otolaryngologist is a head and neck specialist who can examine your vocal cords easily and painlessly. While most voice changes are not caused by cancer, you shouldn’t take chances. If you are hoarse or notice voice changes for more than two weeks, see your doctor.
- A growth in the mouth: Most cancers of the mouth or tongue cause a sore or swelling that doesn’t go away. These may be painless, which can be misleading. Bleeding may occur, but often not until late in the disease. If an ulcer or swelling is accompanied by lumps in the neck, you should be concerned. In addition, any sore or swelling in the mouth that does not go away after a week should be evaluated by your physician.
- Bringing up blood: This is often caused by something other than cancer. However, tumors in the nose, mouth, throat or lungs can cause bleeding. If blood appears in your saliva or phlegm for more than a few days, you should see your physician.
- Difficulty with swallowing: Cancer of the throat or esophagus may make swallowing solid foods – and sometimes liquids – difficult. The food may get “stuck” at a certain point and then either go through to the stomach or come back up. If this occurs almost every time you try to swallow, you should be examined by a physician. Usually a barium swallow X-ray or an esophagoscopy (direct examination of the swallowing tube with a scope) will be performed to find the cause.
- Changes in the skin: The most common head and neck cancer is basal cell cancer of the skin. Fortunately, this is rarely serious if treated early. Basal cell cancers appear most often on sun-exposed areas like the forehead, face and ears, but can occur almost anywhere on the skin. If there is a sore on the lip, lower face or ear that does not heal, consult a physician. Malignant melanoma typically produces a blue-black or black discoloration of the skin. However, any mole that changes size, color or begins to bleed may mean trouble. A black or blue-black spot on the face or neck, particularly if it changes size or shape, should be seen as soon as possible by a dermatologist or other physician.
Persistent earache: Constant pain in or around the ear when you swallow can be a sign of infection or tumor growth in the throat. This is particularly serious if it is associated with difficulty in swallowing, hoarseness or a lump in the neck. These symptoms should be evaluated by an otolaryngologist.