There are many different signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer that are also indicators of other conditions. But some common symptoms include:
- a mouth ulcer that doesn’t heal in a few weeks
- red or white patches in the mouth that don’t go away in a few weeks
- difficulty swallowing, or pain when chewing or swallowing
- changes to your voice (for example, a hoarse voice)
- constant sore throat and earache on one side
- swelling or a lump in your face, mouth or neck.
Less common symptoms of head and neck cancer include:
- a loose tooth
- a blocked nose or nosebleeds
- pain or numbness in your face or upper jaw.
Although some of these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than a head and neck cancer, it’s important to have them checked out by your GP or dentist, particularly if they continue for weeks.6
Diagnosing head and neck cancers
At BMI Healthcare, our consultants will examine you and ask questions about your health. They’ll also ask if you’ve felt or noticed any changes to your voice, swallowing, breathing, appetite or weight. They will then carefully examine your mouth, throat and neck, and talk through any tests that you might need.
If they think you need more specific tests, you’re likely to see an oral and maxillofacial surgeon or an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. These specialist consultants may recommend one or more of the following tests for head and neck cancers:
A nasoendoscope is a thin, flexible tube with a light at the end that’s gently passed up your nose and down your throat to look closely at the back of your mouth, throat and larynx.
An ultrasound scan uses sound waves to create an image of your neck and lymph nodes, so that the doctor can see any changes in the size or appearance.
One of the main tests to diagnose cancer is a biopsy, which involves taking a small sample of tissue from inside your mouth or throat to be examined under a microscope for any cancer.
An incision biopsy is simply a biopsy where a thin slice of tissue is cut from the area to be tested, which is numbed with a local anaesthetic.
Fine needle aspiration (FNA) cytology
To test neck lumps, a fine needle is used to take a sample of cells, and can also be used to take tissue samples from the mouth or throat.
Examination under anaesthetic
Sometimes a biopsy is taken while you’re asleep under a general anaesthetic. This allows the specialist to examine the area closely and to remove a larger area of tissue and/or take samples from any other areas that look abnormal. Usually this test can be done as day surgery and most people are able to go home the same day.
Stages of head and neck cancer
After your tests, your doctor or consultant will tell you about what stage of your head and neck cancer is at, and whether it has spread to any other parts of your body.
The stage of a cancer is simply a term to describe its size and whether it has spread beyond its original site.
The stage of your cancer describes how big your tumour is and how far it’s spread, which will all influence the type of treatment you’re offered.
The stages of the different types of head and neck cancers are all different, and your doctor or nurse will be able to give you more details about the stage of your cancer.
The most common method for staging cancers of the head and neck is the TNM staging system:
- T describes the size and extent of a primary tumour
- N describes whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and which nodes are involved. For example, N0 means that no lymph nodes are affected. N1 means there are cancer cells in a single lymph node, whereas N2 refers to cells in multiple nodes
- M describes if the cancer has spread to another part of the body. For example, M0 means the cancer hasn’t spread (metastasised) to other parts of the body.7
6 Macmillan Cancer Support UK, Symptoms - head and neck cancer.http://www.macmillan.org.uk/Cancerinformation
7 Macmillan Cancer Support, Staging of head and neck cancer.http://www.macmillan.org.uk/Cancerinformation