Neck Cancer Information

More than 55,000 Americans are diagnosed with head and neck cancer each year. Several different cancers fall under this classification, including cancers of the sinuses, pharynx, larynx (voice box), salivary glands, oral cavity, and lymph nodes of the neck.

The primary types of neck cancer include:

  • Adenocarcinomas – These develop in the epithelial cells that line the inside of the throat.
  • Squamous cell carcinomas – These develop in the thin, flat cells that make up the top layer of skin, as well as the lining on the inside of the esophagus and windpipe.
  • Mucoepidermoid carcinomas – These develop in the cells that produce mucous for the larynx and thyroid gland.
  • Adenoid cystic carcinomas and actinic cell carcinomas – These develop in the salivary glands in the neck.
  • Sarcomas – These develop in the bones, cartilage, or soft tissues within the throat or neck.

Neck Cancer Causes

Specific neck cancer causes are still being researched. Although studies have associated certain genetic syndromes and lifestyle factors with a higher risk of head and neck cancer, researchers are still working to determine what prompts healthy cells to become cancerous.

On a basic level, researchers understand that DNA damage can prevent a healthy cell from a natural growth pattern. If a mutated cell is not able to control its growth, it can multiply at a rapid pace, producing more abnormal cells that can eventually accumulate into a tumor. This tumor can spread into lymph nodes or other nearby tissues. If cancerous cells travel throughout the lymphatic system to other parts of the body, they can form additional tumors in other tissues or organs. If this occurs, it is know as metastatic neck cancer.

The genetic mutations that lead to neck cancer can be triggered by several different things. Potential causes of neck cancer include:

  • Tobacco use

  • Excessive consumption of alcohol

  • Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies

  • Infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) or the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)

  • Previous radiation therapy for a past head or neck cancer

  • Genetic mutations associated with Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita

Neck Cancer Symptoms

The symptoms of neck cancer tend to vary based on the size and extent of the tumor. Small, early-stage cancers may not be large enough to see or feel, while larger tumors can cause significant discomfort or develop into a palpable mass.

Neck cancer symptoms also may vary based on the part of the neck in which the tumor develops. For instance:

  • Tumors that develop in the trachea (windpipe) can cause shortness of breath, noisy or raspy breathing, a chronic cough (with or without blood in the sputum), and frequent upper respiratory infections.

  • Tumors that develop in the upper part of the esophagus can cause neck pain and heartburn, and can also make it difficult to swallow.

  • Tumors that develop in the pharynx (the back of the mouth, base of the tongue, back of the palate and the uvula) can cause persistent headaches, nasal congestion, swelling in the neck, nosebleeds, a ringing sensation in the ears, facial pain, and difficulty hearing.

  • Tumors that develop in the salivary glands can cause swelling under the chin or behind the ears, as well as difficulty moving one side of the face (facial nerve palsy).

These symptoms don’t always indicate cancer. However, if any of these symptoms persist for more than a few days, they should be reported to a medical professional who can provide a prompt diagnosis.

Neck Cancer Diagnosis

When diagnosing or treating a patient with neck cancer, oncologists must determine which type of cells have become cancerous. This helps determine which medications, radiation therapy delivery methods, and surgical techniques would be best for the patient’s needs. 

The ENT oncologists at Tampa General Hospital have extensive experience treating each of these unique malignancies. Our team includes a surgeon specializing in robotic procedures for head and neck cancers, as well as a number of other experienced oncologists with various sub-specialties.

Neck Cancer Treatment

At Tampa General Hospital, our team takes a comprehensive, multispecialty approach to treatment of cancers in the head and neck, customizing each patient’s treatment plan to reflect the specific details of his or her diagnosis.

The three main forms of neck cancer treatment that we offer include:

  • Surgery – If a tumor has not grown extensively into the nearby tissues or lymph nodes, surgeons may attempt to remove as much of the growth from the body as possible. Minimally invasive and robotic procedures are often used for head and neck cancer surgery due to its high level of accuracy and small incision.

  • Radiation therapy – In some cases, radiation therapy may be the only treatment needed to destroy a small, localized tumor. In other cases, radiation therapy can help shrink a tumor before surgery or destroy any cells that might have been left in the body after an operation. No matter the goal of the treatment, our radiation oncologists, radiation therapists, and dosimetrists will carefully tailor a plan to deliver the maximum dose of radiation to the tumor while avoiding nearby healthy tissues.

  • Chemotherapy – Powerful medications are injected into a patient’s vein or provided orally (as a pill). As these medications travel through the bloodstream, they destroy any rapidly dividing cells. This not only has an effect on the primary tumor, but also on cancerous cells that have separated from the original lesion and spread throughout the body. Our medical oncologists will adjust the specific drugs recommended, as well as the dosages and delivery cycles, based on the precise type of cells that make up a patient’s tumor