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Head and Neck Cancer

Approximately 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with cancer of the head and neck each year.  Many of these cancers are related to tobacco and alcohol use.

Oral, head and neck cancers are among the most common, yet preventable cancers.  They include a variety of cancers in the head and neck area.  Dr. Debra Gonzalez, laryngology fellow at SIU School of Medicine in Springfield, suggests some warning signs to watch for.

“... things that you should have checked out if you notice or experience would be things like a lump in the neck, a change in your voice – either loss of voice or a hoarseness in the voice, a growth or an ulceration in the mouth, spitting up or coughing up blood, pain in the throat, swallowing problems, changes in your skin – either a patch or discoloration, an ulceration in the skin and persistent earache.”

Dr. Gonzalez says two major risk factors for head and neck cancers are tobacco and alcohol use.  When used together, the two substances have a synergistic effect and can greatly increase a person’s chances of getting these cancers.  Family history or previous radiation treatments to the head and neck area are also risk factors for the disease.  Gonzalez urges individuals who are at risk to be screened and describes the screening process.

“Head and neck cancer is diagnosed primarily through physical exam as well as imaging studies, which can include a CT scan or an MRI scan. And then if we do detect something suspicious – a lump or bump or sore, then biopsy is needed to make a definitive diagnosis.” 

Several locations in Illinois offer free head and neck cancer screenings each spring.  Check with your primary care physician to find a location near you or ask for a head and neck exam during your next office visit.  You also can find information online at or

Ruth Slottag