Symptoms of head and neck cancer can include:
- A lump in the neck
- Change in the voice
- A growth in the mouth
- Bringing up blood
- Swallowing problems
- Changes in the skin
- Persistent earache
A lump in the neck—Cancers that begin in the head or neck usually spread to lymph nodes in the neck before they spread elsewhere. A lump in the neck that lasts more than two weeks should be seen by a physician as soon as possible. Of course, not all lumps are cancer. But a lump(s) in the neck can be the first sign of cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box (larynx), thyroid gland, salivary glands, or of certain lymphomas and blood cancers.
Change in the voice—Most cancers in the voice box cause a change in your voice. An ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist, or otolaryngologist, can examine your voice box easily and painlessly. If you are hoarse or notice voice changes for more than two weeks, see a physician.
A growth in the mouth—Most cancers of the mouth or tongue cause a sore or swelling that doesn’t go away. These may be painless, which can be misleading. Cancer is often painless. Bleeding may occur, but often not until late in the disease. If an ulcer or swelling is accompanied by lumps in the neck, you should be concerned. In addition, any sore or swelling in the mouth that does not go away after two weeks should be evaluated by a physician.
Bringing up blood—This is often caused by something other than cancer. However, tumors in the nose, mouth, throat, or lungs can cause bleeding. If blood appears in your saliva or phlegm for more than a few days, you should see a physician.
Swallowing problems—Cancer of the throat or esophagus may make swallowing solid foods, and sometimes liquids, difficult. If you have trouble almost every time you try to swallow something, you should see a physician. A barium swallow X-ray or a direct examination of the swallowing tube with a scope, called an esophagoscopy, can help determine the cause.
Changes in the skin—The most common head and neck cancer is basal cell skin cancer. Fortunately, this is rarely serious if treated early. Basal cell cancers appear most often on sun-exposed areas like the forehead, face, and ears, but can occur almost anywhere on the skin. Basal cell cancer often begins as a small, pale patch that slowly grows, producing a central dimple and, eventually, an ulcer. Parts of the ulcer may heal, but the major portion remains ulcerated. Some basal cell cancers show color changes.
Other kinds of cancer, including squamous cell cancer and malignant melanoma, also occur on the head and neck. Most squamous cell cancers occur on the lower lip and ear. They may look like basal cell cancers and are usually not dangerous if caught early and treated properly. If there is a sore on the lip, lower face, or ear that does not heal, see a physician. Malignant melanoma typically produces a blue-black or black discoloration of the skin. However, any mole or spot that changes size or color, or begins to bleed, should be seen as soon as possible by a dermatologist or other physician.
Persistent earache—Constant pain in or around the ear when you swallow can be a sign of infection or tumor in the throat. This is particularly serious if you also have difficulty swallowing, a hoarse voice, or a lump in the neck, and should be evaluated by an ENT specialist.