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What’s Your Risk for Head and Neck Cancer?

By on March 5, 2012

For generations people everywhere have enjoyed an alcoholic drink or a cigarette often unaware or minimizing the negative health consequences. Alcohol and tobacco have known risks that many are willing to take. But when these two social and even habitual indulgences are combined they can make for the ultimate risk factors in all head and neck cancers. That’s right, cancer. African Americans are more likely than whites to be diagnosed with cancer of the Larynx as a direct result of alcohol and tobacco use.

This cancer most often present in people over the age of 55 and statistically speaking, men are four times more likely than women to be diagnosed with the dreaded disease. There are five main types of head and neck cancers but we will focus mainly on cancer of the Larynx.

  • Larynx (Voice Box)
  • Nasal cavity
  • Nasopharynx
  • Oralpharynx
  • Salivary gland

Head and neck cancers usually begin in the tissue or cells that line the moist surfaces inside the head and neck like inside the mouth, the nose, and the throat. Using either alcohol or tobacco alone can be harmful but when they are combined the alcohol may alter the normal cells cycle which hinder their ability to repair damaged DNA caused by the harmful chemicals in tobacco.

Signs and symptoms of head and cancer can include some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Enlarged neck lymph nodes
  • Sore throat
  • Ear pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness
  • Cough
  • Pain

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, see your primary care physician as soon as possible. Ask your physician to inspect your neck to check your thyroid, larynx, and lymph nodes for abnormal lumps or swelling. If additional diagnostic exams are needed you may be referred to an Ear Eyes Nose and Throat Specialist (EENT).

The diagnostic workup may include the following:

  • CT scan which will show multiple slices or renditions of what the area of interest looks like
  • Laryngoscopy: The doctor will place long tube with a light down your throat or through your nose to take a closer look
  • A biopsy: A small piece of tissue is taken from the area and sent to the lab to determine if the cells are cancerous.

If cancerous cells are found, the workup will continue to determine the stage or extent of the disease to consider treatment options. The treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or in some cases a combination of the three. I strongly urge you to talk to your physician if you are a loved one maybe suffering from any of the symptoms mentioned. Visit the American Cancer Society website if you would like additional information about this or any other type of cancer. The purpose of this article is to provide useful health information.


Maurice T.  Judkins is a Radiation Therapist for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Durham North Carolina.  He is a decorated United States Army Veteran and was trained as a Combat Lifesaver while serving a tour in Iraq. He also Contributes to healthyblackmen.org.

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