You wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and realize that you have a small lump in your neck, or notice an abnormality in your head or neck region.
Your first reaction is likely to panic, and while it is important to realize that many head and neck masses are benign, it is also important to visit our ENT doctors at Northeast Atlanta Ear Nose & Throat in order to get a diagnosis as soon as possible. Remember, if your head or neck mass is cancerous, early detection is key.
Signs and Symptoms of Head and Neck Masses
There are several signs and symptoms that you should look out for, including:
lump in the neck
a growth in the mouth
a change in your voice
bringing up blood
changes in the skin
We will discuss each…
Lump in the Neck
If cancer begins in the neck or head regions, the cancer typically spreads to the lymph nodes in the neck. This can happen before spreading to anywhere else in the body. If you notice a lump in the neck for more than two weeks, you should get checked by the doctor.
Not all lumps are cancerous, but it is always best to get evaluated by your doctor as soon as possible if you notice a lump. Lump(s) in the neck can be a first sign of cancer of the thyroid gland, voice box (larynx), mouth, throat, or of certain lymphomas and blood cancers. The lumps are typically painless, but they usually become enlarged on a steady basis.
A Growth in the Mouth
Nearly all cancers in the larynx cause some sort of change in the voice. Your otolaryngologist at Northeast Atlanta ENT can examine the vocal cords in an easy and pain-free way. Most voice changes are not caused by cancer. However, it is always best to get checked by your doctor, especially if you are hoarse or notice voice changes for more than a 2-week period.
A Change in Your Voice
If you notice a sore or swelling in your mouth or on the tongue that will not go away, see your otolaryngologist. Most mouth or tongue cancers will produce a sore or swelling, which can be painless and misleading. It is always best to get checked as soon as possible.
Sometimes bleeding can occur, but that typically will not happen until late in the disease. An ulcer or swelling may be accompanied by lumps in the neck, and this is definitely a cause for concern. Additionally, if you notice a sore or swelling in the mouth that will not go away after a 1-week period, schedule an appointment with your otolaryngologist.
One of our otolaryngologists can take a biopsy (tissue sample test) to provide a diagnosis.
Bringing up Blood
This symptom can often be caused by a condition other than cancer. It is important to note that tumors in the nose, mouth, throat, or lungs can cause bleeding. If you notice that you have blood in your saliva or phlegm for more than a few days at a time, we recommend visiting our ENT office.
Swallowing solid foods or liquids can become difficult for those with cancer of the throat or esophagus (the swallowing tube). While eating, the food can “stick.” When that happens the food will either go to the stomach or come back up. If you experience difficulty almost every time you swallow foods or liquids, see our ENT doctor for evaluation. Our ENT doctors typically use a barium swallow x-ray or an esophagoscopy (direct examination of the swallowing tube by using a scope) to determine the cause.
Changes in the Skin
Basal cell cancer of the skin is the most common head and neck cancer. This cancer is rarely serious if it is treated early.
Basal cell cancers appear frequently on sun-exposed areas: face, ears, and forehead. However, they can also appear anywhere else on the skin.
This cancer typically begins as a small, pale patch, which enlarges slowly. As it enlarges, a central “dimple” and an ulcer appear. Portions of the ulcer might heal, but the majority of it remains ulcerated. Some basal cell cancers show color changes in the skin.
Other kinds of cancer include squamous cell cancer and malignant melanoma, which can occur on the head and neck.
Most squamous cell cancers occur on the ear and the lower lip. They sometimes look similar to basal cell cancers.
If caught early on and treated promptly, squamous cell cancers usually are not dangerous.
If you notice a sore on the lower face, ear, or lip that will not heal, schedule an appointment with our ENT doctors for an evaluation.
Malignant melanomas usually produce a blue-black or black discoloration of the skin. If you notice a mole that chances in color, size, or if it begins to bleed, this must get diagnosed and treated right away.
If you notice a black or a blue-black spot on your face or neck regions, especially if it changes in shape or size, seek treatment and diagnosis by a doctor or dermatologist right away.
It can be a sign of infection or tumor growth in the throat if you have constant pain in or near the ear when you swallow. This can be very serious if you experience a persistent earache in combination with difficulty in swallowing, hoarseness, or a lump in the neck. You should get evaluated by an otolaryngologist in this case.
How to Identify If You are at High Risk for Head and Neck Cancer
Approximately 90% of head and neck cancers arise after prolonged exposure to certain risk factors, such as:
using tobacco (cigars, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, snuff)
consuming alcoholic beverages
prolonged exposure to sunlight
Actually, alcohol and tobacco consumption and use are the most common causes of cancer in the voice box, tongue, mouth, and throat.
For adults who do not smoke or drink alcohol, the HPV virus (human papilloma virus) can cause throat cancer.
As for skin cancer, prolonged exposure to the sun is linked to cancer of the lip, and is a major cause of skin cancer.
What Should You Do Now?
Keep in mind that all of the symptoms and signs presented on this page can occur with no cancer present; actually, the complaints are due to a different condition. However, there is no way you can determine the underlying cause without an examination by the ENT doctor.
Also of high importance to remember is that most head and neck cancers can be cured with few side effects if the cancer is found early. The cure rates would be significantly improved if patients seek medical treatment right away.
If you notice any signs or symptoms that could be related to a head or neck mass or cancer, please call us as soon as possible. We can give you a proper diagnosis and the treatment you deserve.