What are signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer?

A sign is also a signal that something is not right in the body. But signs are signals that can be seen by someone else -- maybe a loved one, or a doctor, nurse, or other health care professional. Fever, fast breathing, and abnormal lung sounds heard through a stethoscope may be signs of pneumonia.

A symptom is a signal of disease, illness, injury, or that something is not right in the body. Symptoms are felt or noticed by the person who has them, but may not be easily.

What are common symptoms of head and neck cancer?

In most cases, laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers are found because of the symptoms they cause.
Hoarseness or voice changes
Laryngeal cancers that form on the vocal cords (glottis) often cause hoarseness or a change in the voice. This can lead to them being found at a very early stage. People who have voice changes (like hoarseness) that do not improve within 2 weeks should see their health care provider right away.

For cancers that don’t start on the vocal cords, hoarseness occurs only after these cancers reach a later stage or have spread to the vocal cords. These cancers are sometimes not found until they have spread to the lymph nodes and the person notices a growing mass in the neck.

Other symptoms
Cancers that start in the area of the larynx above the vocal cords (supraglottis), the area below the vocal cords (subglottis), or the hypopharynx do not usually cause voice changes, and are therefore more often found at later stages.

Symptoms of these cancers may include:

  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • Constant coughing
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Ear pain
  • Trouble breathing
  • Weight loss
  • A lump or mass in the neck (due to spread of the cancer to nearby lymph nodes)

Many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by conditions other than laryngeal or hypopharyngeal cancer. Still, if you have any of these symptoms, it is very important to have them checked by a doctor so that the cause can be found and treated.

Source: American Cancer Society: Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers.

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