When to Be Seen
There are many things to watch out for that could mean a visit to the ENT. Here are some symptoms that you should be aware of:
- Lump in Neck: Cancers that begin in the head or neck usually spread to lymph nodes in the neck before they spread elsewhere. A lump in the neck that lasts more than two weeks should be seen by a physician as soon as possible. Of course, not all lumps are cancer. But a lump (or lumps) in the neck can be the first sign of cancer of the mouth, throat, voicebox (larynx), thyroid gland, or of certain lymphomas or blood cancers. Such lumps are generally painless and continue to enlarge steadily.
- Change in Voice: .Most cancers in the larynx cause some change in voice. Any hoarseness or other voice change lasting more than two weeks should alert you to see your physician. An otolaryngologist is a head and neck specialist who can examine your vocal cords easily and painlessly. While most voice changes are not caused by cancer, you shouldn't take chances. If you are hoarse more than two weeks, make sure you don't have cancer of the larynx. See your doctor.
- Growth in Mouth: Most cancers of the mouth or tongue cause a sore or swelling that doesn't go away. These sores and swellings may be painless unless they become infected. Bleeding may occur, but often not until late in the disease. If an ulcer or swelling is accompanied by lumps in the neck, be very concerned. Your dentist or doctor can determine if a biopsy (tissue sample test) is needed and can refer you to a head and neck surgeon to perform this procedure.
- Bringing Up Blood: This is often caused by something other than cancer. However, tumors in the nose, mouth, throat or lungs can cause bleeding. If blood appears in your saliva or phlegm for more than a few days, you should see your physician.
- Swallowing Problems: Cancer of the throat or esophagus (swallowing tube) may make swallowing solid foods difficult. Sometimes liquids can also be troublesome. The food may "stick" at a certain point and then either go through to the stomach or come back up. If you have trouble almost every time you try to swallow something, you should be examined by a physician. Usually a barium swallow x-ray or an esophagoscopy (direct examination of the swallowing tube with a telescope) will be performed to find the cause.
- Changes in Skin: The most common head and neck cancer is basal cell cancer of the skin. Fortunately, this is rarely a major problem if treated early. Basal cell cancers appear most often on sun-exposed areas like the forehead, face, and ears, although they can occur almost anywhere on the skin. Basal cell cancer often begins as a small, pale patch that enlarges slowly, producing a central "dimple" and eventually an ulcer. Parts of the ulcer may heal, but the major portion remains ulcerated. Some basal cell cancers show color changes. Other kinds of cancer, including squamous cell cancer and malignant melanoma, also occur on the skin of the head and neck. Most squamous cell cancers occur on the lower lip and ear. They may look like basal cell cancers and, if caught early and properly treated, usually are not much more dangerous. If there is a sore on the lip, lower face, or ear that does not heal, consult a physician. Malignant melanoma classically produces dense blue-black or black discolorations of the skin. However, any mole that changes size, color, or begins to bleed may be trouble. A black or blue-black spot on the face or neck, particularly if it changes size or shape, should be seen as soon as possible.
- Persistent Earache: Constant pain in or around the ear when you swallow can be a sign of infection or tumor growth in the throat. This is particularly serious if it is associated with difficulty in swallowing, hoarseness or a lump in the neck. These symptoms are best evaluated by an otolaryngologist.