Warning Signs of Head and Neck Cancer You Need to Know

Symptoms vary based on where in your body the cancer is found. Here's what to look for.

On Thursday, it was revealed that Michael Caputo, top spokesman at the Department of Health and Human Services, has been diagnosed with a metastatic head and neck cancer called squamous cell carcinoma, which originated in the former Trump campaign official's throat, CNN reported. Caputo, who had recently taken a two-month medical leave "to focus on his health and the well-being of his family," is currently resting at home and determining what his next steps will be, spokesman David DiPietro said in a statement.

If this could happen to someone who specializes in health services, you might be wondering, what are the chances it could happen to you, too? Head and neck cancers, which include cancers of the mouth, account for about four percent of all cancers in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). They are also more than twice as likely to be diagnosed in men than they are in women and people who use tobacco products of any kind are considered more at risk than those who do not.

An estimated 65,410 people are expected to be diagnosed with head and neck cancer in 2020. Treatment of these cancers varies based on the location of the tumor, severity, and stage at which the cancer is diagnosed. To help shed light on the disease so you know what to look for, these are the five most common head and neck cancers, along with the symptoms for each. And for more on what causes diseases like Caputo's, check out 30 Things You Had No Idea Could Cause Cancer.

Pharyngeal cancer

Young adult man suffering from sore throat

One of the main target areas of head and neck cancer is your pharynx—the hollow passageway that runs from behind your nose to your esophagus. According to the NCI, the most common symptoms include trouble breathing or speaking, pain when swallowing, frequent headaches, ringing in the ears, and trouble hearing. Squamous cell carcinoma, which Caputo was diagnosed with, comprises over 95 percent of oropharyngeal cancers, according to Bradley A. Schiff, MD, of Montefiore Medical Center. And for signs of sickness that many don't know but should, check out 60 Percent of Women Don't Know These Key Cancer Symptoms, Study Says.

Sinus and nasal cavity cancer

Woman lost sense of smell

According to the Cancer Treatment Centers for America (CTCA), cancer in your sinuses and nasal cavity forms in the space just behind the nose, where air passes through to your throat. In addition, this form of head and neck cancer "may also develop in the air-filled areas that surround the nasal cavity, called the paranasal sinuses." Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer are far less common than other forms of heath and neck cancer, but when they do occur, the NCI says the most common symptoms are blocked sinuses, chronic sinus infections that don't respond to antibiotics, bleeding through the nose, frequent headaches, swelling or other trouble with the eyes, and pain in the upper teeth.

Oral cancer

Older man holding his jaw in pain

Your oral cavity—your lips, tongue, gums, inner cheeks, and the bottom and top of your mouth—is a common area where head and neck cancer may develop. According to the CTCA, oral cancer is the ninth most common cancer among men. Symptoms include a red or white patch in your mouth, pain or swelling in and around your jaw, bleeding, and loose teeth.

Laryngeal cancer

Young man with a sore throat

Laryngeal cancer is a type of throat cancer found in your larynx, or voice box. It's the passageway where your vocal cords and that little piece of tissue at the back of your throat called the epiglottis are found. Per the CTCA, cancers found in this area are among the most common forms of head and neck cancer. The two most frequent symptoms, according to the NCI, are pain when swallowing and ear pain. For more on famous figures who have battled serious medical conditions, check out Celebrities Who Battled Cancer and Won.

Salivary gland cancer


Cancerous tumors can also develop in your salivary glands, which produce saliva and are primarily found under and behind your jaw, the Mayo Clinic says. If cancer develops in these glands, the NCI says patients may experience swelling under the chin or around the jaw, numbness or paralysis in the face, and persistent pain in the face, chin, or neck. And for more helpful health information delivered to straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

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