This week is European Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. But let’s be honest, it’s not the most high-profile event on the calendar. Head and neck cancers can be kind of hard to understand - the definitions aren’t simple, the cancers themselves are rare, and even imagining where they are can be difficult. Most people can picture where the lungs are, but can you point to your nasopharynx? How do you even pronounce “otolaryngology”, much less define it? So in this blog, we’d like to try and clear up a few things.

(By the way, your nasopharynx is just above the soft part at the back of your mouth, where it connects your nose to your throat. And the word is pronounced “oh-toe-lar-en-gall-uh-gee”. It means ‘study of the ear and throat', and if you play it in Scrabble it could score up to 266 points.)

So, what are head and neck cancers? Most are cancers that start in the mouth or throat. But the group also includes rarer ones found in the nose, the sinuses, the part of the throat called the pharynx, and the salivary glands. Here’s a diagram that shows where they are (including the nasopharynx, if you’re still thinking about that one):

The group of head and neck cancers does not include the brain, eyes, oesophagus, skin, thyroid or trachea.

Head and neck cancers are quite rare. There were only about 12,000 cases in all of the UK in 2015. We know that if they are found early, most head and neck cancers can be well treated. The European Head & Neck Society have identified the most critical symptoms. If you have one or more of these symptoms for 3 weeks, please see your doctor:

  • sore tongue
  • mouth ulcers that don’t heal
  • red or white patches in the mouth
  • pain in the throat
  • persistent hoarseness
  • painful swallowing
  • difficult swallowing
  • lump in the neck
  • blocked nose on one side
  • bloody discharge from the nose.

Head and neck cancers are more often found in older men, but they can affect women too. And younger people can also be affected. There are some things that increase the risk of developing head and neck cancers. These include:

  • tobacco – smoking or chewing tobacco raises the risks of head and neck cancers
  • alcohol – consuming more than 2 units per day (or 3 units for men) raises the risk
  • HPV – certain sub-types of HPV (human papillovirus) can increase the risk.

Alcohol and tobacco are the main risk factors, and reducing your exposure to alcohol and tobacco is good for a lot of other reasons too. If you would like help to cut down on your smoking, Macmillan has information you might find useful. If you’re worried about HPV, please speak to your GP or your local sexual health clinic – they will have more information about HPV, how it’s spread, and how it can be prevented.

If you have more questions or concerns, you can contact Macmillan’s support line on 0808 808 00 00 for free. Macmillan’s Online Community also has a group for people affected by head and neck cancers, where people can ask questions, share experiences, and support each other. The Make Sense campaign has additional resources available to people with head and neck cancers.

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