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Signs of Head & Neck Cancer: June 5, 2014

It’s been called the ’15 minutes that could save your life’.  Screening for head and neck cancer is a small time investment that may help doctors find a problem when it’s most treatable.

“We would love to screen lots more people,” says Dr. Phillip Andrews. He is an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) on medical staff at Lee Memorial Health System. “The earlier we catch any cancer greatly increases the chance of curing it.”

Head and neck cancers include any cancer above the collar bone, outside the brain. Dentists commonly screen the mouth and tongue, but doctors perform a thorough exam.

“It’s not invasive at all; we look at the skin of the face and the neck. We look in the nose, we look in the mouth, in the throat; we look at the voice box and feel on the neck,” says Dr. Andrews.

Unlike cancer screens that are linked to very specific tests, like a mammogram, a colonoscopy, the PSA or PAP test - oral cancer screenings look for signs and symptoms. Including ones that you should share with your doctor.

“Any sore that doesn't heal in the mouth, on the skin, in the nose, it’s something that does not heal - you’ve got to be concerned about it,” says Dr. Andrews. “If you’re hoarse more than three weeks you’ve got to have somebody look at it.”

New or unusual pains can also be a red flag.

“Pain in the throat, difficulty swallowing that does not go away after two or three weeks. Pain in the ear that is unexplained could be coming from a throat cancer, because the nerve that supplies the two areas is the same.”

A lump in the neck should also be checked out. Head and neck cancers seem to sneak up on people, so if you suspect an oral cancer- speak up.