Around 12,400 people in the UK are diagnosed with head and neck cancer each year, and it is found in over 30 areas within the head and neck1. Yet many people are unaware of the signs and symptoms.

This World Head and Neck Cancer Day (27 July), Mr Alastair Fry, Consultant Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeon at Cromwell Hospital outlines everything you need to know about head and neck cancer:

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer is cancer within either the mouth, the neck, the throat, or the face, it can also involve the jaw, the tongue, the palette and can spread to the lymph glands in the neck.

The most common type is mouth cancer which accounts for about 90% of all head and neck cancers. There are also rarer types which often involve the salivary glands and are managed slightly differently.

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer can present in a number of different ways and therefore can have a number of different symptoms. They often mimic symptoms of other less serious conditions, for example people may think they have a dental condition.

The classic symptoms are a new pain or lump within the mouth or neck which has been present for a number of weeks. Other people experience a numbness or loosening of the teeth in a certain area.

The main symptoms I see at Cromwell Hospital are white patches or ulcers in the mouth, or a lump within the mouth or neck, difficulty swallowing or changes to the voice, either of these symptoms may have been picked up by the patient or by their dentist.

It’s so important that if people have any of these symptoms that they come forward as we know the outcome for head and neck cancer is much better if caught and treated early.

How do I check myself for head and neck cancer?

Be on the look out for ulcers or white patches in your mouth and make sure you get them checked out if they’ve been present for more than a week. Make sure you’re also regularly attending check-ups with your dentist who will check for mouth cancer during your appointment. Lots of patients we see have been referred to us by their dentist.

Another thing to look out for is lumps in the neck, difficulty swallowing or changes to the voice. If you notice these make sure you get a medical opinion.

What are the risk factors associated with head and neck cancer? 

The main risk factors for getting head and neck cancer are smoking and drinking a lot of alcohol, and chewing tobacco can also increase your risk. We’re also now seeing patients who don’t have any obvious risk factors.

As we’re seeing more and more patients where there isn’t an obvious cause, it’s so important that we raise awareness of head and neck cancer so that patients know what to look out for and see a doctor when they recognise a potential symptom.

How is head and neck cancer treated?

Head and neck cancer treatment can be quite complex and is run through a multi-disciplinary team (a team of doctors who assess a patient’s condition together and discuss the best course of treatment). The main treatment is usually surgery with possible radiotherapy depending on the stage of the cancer.

How does Cromwell Hospital support patients?

At Cromwell Hospital, we’ve established the first survivorship clinic in recognition of the fact that patients going through head and neck cancer do experience side effects which can impact their quality of life. There are lots of patients living with the consequences of having had head and neck cancer and treatment for it.

The survivorship clinic includes speech therapy, physiotherapy, dietetics, oral medicine as well as surgery, so we can provide surveillance and manage things like dry mouth, fibrosis after radiotherapy, dental issues which arise and support and monitor some of the rarer side effects. It’s all about making sure that we can rehabilitate patients and help them live as full a life as possible after cancer.