The symptoms of head and neck cancer you should know about

Each year, more than 1 million people are diagnosed with cancer in the United States. We’re familiar with the more common types — cancers of the breast, lungs, and prostate, for example— but did you know about 4 percent of cancers occur in the head and neck?

Head and neck cancer is the general category for a variety of troubles within the mouth, throat, lymph nodes and nasal and sinus cavities (note: brain cancer falls into its own category, which is why it’s not touched on in this article). Men are twice as likely as women to develop these cancers; people who use tobacco and drink alcohol are also at higher risk.

Film critic Roger Ebert, who died in 2013, brought head and neck cancer to national attention as he suffered from cancer of the salivary glands (as well as of the thyroid) — his lower jaw was removed as the cancer spread and he lost his ability to speak.

roger ebert photo
Getty Images | Daniel Boczarski

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncologists, there are five main types of head and neck cancer. Here’s a quick rundown of those, plus information on the diseases’ rates of occurrence and symptoms to watch out for:

Laryngeal And Hypopharyngeal Cancer

These are two of the most common types of head and neck cancer. More than 16,ooo people a year will be diagnosed with one of these, according to the American Cancer Society.

Most cases are the laryngeal (aka affecting the larynx) variety, and most of those diagnosed are men. Symptoms: hoarseness or voice changes that last beyond 2 weeks (often an early sign); enlarged lymph node or lump in the neck; difficulty breathing or swallowing; a persistent sore throat or feeling of obstruction; chronic bad breath.

Hypopharyngeal cancer (cancer that affects the bottom part of the throat) is less common. While it shares symptoms with laryngeal cancer — including voice changes, difficulty or pain when swallowing or a lump in the neck— symptoms may include ear pain as well.


Nasal Cavity And Paranasal Sinus Cancer 

About 2,000 people a year are diagnosed with these uncommon forms of cancer, approximately 90 percent of whom are age 55 and older. Symptoms: persistent nasal congestion; frequent headaches or sinus pain; persistent swelling of the face, eyes or ears; persistent tearing of the eyes; pain, numbness or loosening of teeth.

Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Another uncommon head and neck cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer is diagnosed in less than 1 per 100,000 people in the U.S. The disease is more prevalent in some populations, though, including Asians, Pacific Islanders and Inuits. Interestingly, about 50 percent of people with this cancer are age 55 or younger. Symptoms: trouble hearing, a sense of fullness or pain in the ear; ringing in the ear; pain, numbness or paralysis in the face.


Oral And Oropharyngeal

This is a more prevalent form of cancer, with an estimated 51,450 people diagnosed in 2018, largely men. Symptoms: red or white patches on the gums, tongue, tonsils or lining of the mouth; a feeling of thickening in the cheek; difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaws or tongue; dentures that no longer fit; ear and/or jaw pain.

Salivary Gland Cancer

A very rare cancer, salivary gland cancer accounts for less than 1 percent of cancers diagnosed in a year. Symptoms: numbness in the face; paralysis of facial muscles, especially on one side; pain or swelling in the face, chin, jawbone or neck; differences in size or shape between left and right sides of the face or neck.

There’s one symptom that almost all of these cancers share: Unexplained lumps and bumps, or sores that never seem to heal. If you are concerned by any of these symptoms give your doctor a call — or your dentist. Dentists play a key role in detecting cancers of the mouth and tongue, as well.


If you have concerns about your health, it’s best to call your doctor. As always, early detection is the key, so don’t hesitate to get checked out!