Squamous Cell Head and Neck Cancer

Squamous cell head and neck cancer is a fairly common type of cancer that forms in the squamous cells lining the surfaces inside the head and neck, such as the mouth, nose, and throat. Squamous cell head and neck cancers are generally characterized by the region from which they arise:

  • Oral cavity (lips, gums, inside of the cheeks, floor of the mouth, and the tongue)
  • Pharynx, or throat, which is divided into the nasopharynx (behind the nose), oropharynx (back of mouth), and hypopharynx (lower throat)
  • Larynx (vocal cords and epiglottis—the flap of tissue that prevents food from entering the air passages)
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses surrounding the nose
  • Salivary glands

Major risk factors for head and neck cancers (except for that of the salivary glands) are alcohol and tobacco use. Being infected by human papillomavirus (HPV) is another big risk factor associated with some types of head and neck cancers, in particular oropharyngeal cancers. However, men are more vulnerable that women, as are people aged over 50 years. Other risk factors include a diet heavy in preserved or salted foods, poor oral health, occupational exposure (for example, wood dust, asbestos, and synthetic fibers), radiation exposure, and Epstein-Barr virus infection.

Symptoms depend on the specific location of tumors in the head and neck and can include the following:

  • A lump or sore that doesn’t heal
  • Chronic sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing or painful swallowing
  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • White or red patches on the gums, tongue, lining of the mouth
  • Swelling of the jaw
  • Bleeding or mouth pain
  • Trouble breathing or speaking
  • Chronic neck pain
  • Frequent headaches
  • Ringing in the ears, ear pain
  • Trouble hearing
  • Blocked sinuses or chronic sinus infection

Diagnosing squamous cell head and neck cancers involve a physical examination, evaluating a person’s medical history, various diagnostic tests based on symptoms, and tissue biopsy. Treatment depends on the location of the tumor, cancer stage, and the patient’s age and general health status. Standard treatments for squamous cell head and neck cancers include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Combination therapy