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Overview of Mouth, Nose, and Throat Cancers

By

Bradley A. Schiff

, MD, Montefiore Medical Center, The University Hospital of Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Last full review/revision Jan 2021| Content last modified Jan 2021
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Topic Resources

Cancers of the mouth, nose, and throat develop in almost 65,000 people in the United States each year. These cancers are more common among men because male smokers continue to outnumber female smokers and because oral human papillomavirus (HPV) Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes warts. Some types of HPV cause skin warts, and other types cause genital warts (growths in or around the vagina, penis, or rectum). Infection with some HPV... read more Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection infection is more frequent in males. Most affected people are between the ages of 50 and 70. However, the cancers caused by HPV, which are primarily oropharyngeal cancers Mouth and Throat Cancer Mouth and throat cancers are cancers that originate on the lips, the roof, sides, or floor of the mouth, tongue, tonsils, or back of the throat. Mouth and throat cancers may look like open sores... read more Mouth and Throat Cancer , occur more often in younger people.

Often, cancers of the mouth, nose, and throat are considered together by doctors because of certain similarities. Among the similarities are the type of cancer and the causes. More than 90% of cancers of the mouth, nose, and throat are squamous cell carcinomas, which means the cancer develops in the squamous cells that line the inside of the mouth, nose, or throat. Most people who have mouth, nose, or throat cancers use tobacco, drink alcohol, or both. Another cause of some types of these cancers is viral infection. HPV Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes warts. Some types of HPV cause skin warts, and other types cause genital warts (growths in or around the vagina, penis, or rectum). Infection with some HPV... read more Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection can cause mouth and throat cancer Mouth and Throat Cancer Mouth and throat cancers are cancers that originate on the lips, the roof, sides, or floor of the mouth, tongue, tonsils, or back of the throat. Mouth and throat cancers may look like open sores... read more Mouth and Throat Cancer , and the Epstein-Barr virus Infectious Mononucleosis Epstein-Barr virus causes a number of diseases, including infectious mononucleosis. The virus is spread through kissing. Symptoms vary, but the most common are extreme fatigue, fever, sore throat... read more Infectious Mononucleosis can cause nasopharyngeal cancer Nasopharyngeal Cancer Nasopharyngeal cancers are cancers originating at the back of the nasal passage, from above the soft palate to the upper part of the throat. People often develop lumps in their neck or may have... read more .

A Look Inside the Nose and Throat

A Look Inside the Nose and Throat

The most common sites of mouth, nose, and throat cancers are

Less common sites for these cancers are

Symptoms of Mouth, Nose, and Throat Cancers

Symptoms vary depending on the location of the cancer. Common symptoms of mouth, nose, and throat cancers include

  • Hoarseness

  • A lump in the neck

  • A painful open sore or a growth in the mouth

  • Difficulty swallowing and resulting weight loss

Sometimes red or white patches (erythroplakia or leukoplakia) in the mouth may be early symptoms.

Diagnosis of Mouth, Nose, and Throat Cancers

Some cancers inside the mouth do not cause symptoms at first but can be seen or felt by a doctor or dentist during a routine mouth examination. If a person has symptoms, the doctor can use a flexible viewing tube, called an endoscope, to examine the deeper regions in the mouth, nose, and throat. The diagnosis is made by examining a sample of tissue, called a biopsy, from the suspected cancer. Doctors insert a needle into the growth to get a small amount of tissue or cut out a small piece using a scalpel.

Staging tests

Before they can select the best form of treatment for a person's mouth, nose, or throat cancer, doctors do staging Staging Cancer Cancer is suspected based on a person's symptoms, the results of a physical examination, and sometimes the results of screening tests. Occasionally, x-rays obtained for other reasons, such as... read more tests to determine how advanced the cancer has become, taking into account the cancer's size, invasion into nearby tissues, and distant spread (metastasis). Cancers of the mouth, nose, and throat are staged according to the size, location, and invasiveness of the original tumor, the number and size of metastases to the lymph nodes Lymphoid organs The immune system is designed to defend the body against foreign or dangerous invaders. Such invaders include Microorganisms (commonly called germs, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi) Parasites... read more in the neck, and evidence of metastases to distant parts of the body. Stage I cancer is the least advanced, and stage IV is the most advanced.

Prognosis of Mouth, Nose, and Throat Cancers

The outcome of mouth, nose, and throat cancers varies greatly depending on the type, location, cause, and stage of the cancer. In general, outcomes are better when the cancer is diagnosed and treated before it has spread. People with mouth and throat cancers caused by HPV have a better prognosis than a person whose tumors were caused by tobacco or alcohol.

Prevention of Mouth, Nose, and Throat Cancers

It is important for people to eliminate risk factors of mouth, nose, and throat cancers, so everyone should stop using tobacco (smoking and chewing tobacco) and limit how much alcohol they drink. Removing risk factors also helps prevent disease from coming back in people who have been treated for cancer.

Treatment of Mouth, Nose, and Throat Cancers

  • Surgery and/or radiation therapy

  • Sometimes chemotherapy

  • Palliative treatment

Unless a cancer is easily treated, measures to manage a person's pain and quality of life (called palliative treatment) is essential. Pain and palliative care specialists develop plans to manage a person's pain, difficulty eating, choking on secretions, and other troublesome symptoms. Treatment may include surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. For example, if a tumor is causing pain but cannot be removed surgically, radiation to the tumor may shrink it, temporarily reducing the person's pain.

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