Head and Neck Cancer

Head and Neck Cancer

What are head and neck cancers?

Cancers of the head and neck are rare, however when they do occur they require specialist management. These cancers may occur in the mouth, nose, sinuses or throat, including the tonsils, back of the tongue, voice box (larynx) or swallowing passage (hypopharynx and oesophagus). 

Head and neck cancers are typically caused by smoking and alcohol. More recently, tumours of the tonsils and tongue base have been associated with a virus, the same virus that causes cervical cancer in women (human papilloma virus). 

What are the symptoms of these cancers?

The symptoms of these cancers can be varied but the presence of any of the following should prompt a thorough assessment by an ENT surgeon who specializes in head and neck cancer:

  • Persistent sore throat, not relieved with a course of antibiotics
  • Voice change
  • Swallowing difficulty or painful swallowing
  • Throat pain, particularly if the pain is referring to the ear
  • Persistent neck lump
  • Blocked nose with nose bleeds

The treatment of these cancers can be complex and it requires input from many doctors- surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, radiologists and pathologists. I am the current chairman of the Royal Adelaide Hospital multi-disciplinary team for the management of head and neck cancers and also a member of the St Andrew’s Hospital head and neck cancer multi-disciplinary team. I present all of the cancer patients I treat at these meetings and provide advice to other treating doctors about their cases as well.