Diagnosis, Symptoms and Types of Head and Neck Cancers

Mount Sinai’s head and neck oncology team is comprised of some of the world’s finest experts in diagnosing and treating cancers of the larynx, throat, tongue, tonsil, thyroid, parathyroid, salivary gland, sinuses, and trachea. Our fellowship trained physicians are also renowned for their microvascular and reconstructive surgery techniques. As the patient, it is important to understand your condition so you can effectively partner with your doctor in order to achieve the best possible long-term health.

Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancers are more common in men, particularly over the age of 50, but thyroid cancers are more common in women by a measure of 3 to 1 versus men. HPV (human papillomavirus) is now the leading cause of oral and throat cancers, accounting for approximately 80 percent of cases. The use of tobacco, including smokeless tobacco (also called "chewing tobacco" or "snuff"), and alcohol are also risk factors for head and neck cancers. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk for developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.

Other risk factors for cancers of the head and neck vary by the location of cancer:

  • Oral cavity and oropharynx : Sun exposure, poor oral hygiene, a weakened immune system, and marijuana use, in addition to human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which is transmitted through sexual activity, including oral sex; the use of mouthwash with a high alcohol content is also a possible contributing factor.
  • Salivary glands: Radiation exposure to the head and neck from diagnostic X-rays or from radiation therapy, and environmental/occupational exposure to sawdust and chemicals associated with the leather industry and pesticides.
  • Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: Certain industrial exposures such as wood, asbestos, formaldehyde or glue fumes,  or nickel dust inhalation; tobacco and alcohol use may play less of a role in this type of cancer, as well as HPV.
  • Nasopharynx: Asian, particularly Chinese, ancestry, Epstein-Barr infection, occupational exposure to wood dust, tobacco and alcohol use, and consumption of certain preservatives or salted foods.
  • Hypopharynx: Plummer-Vinson (Paterson-Kelly) syndrome, a rare disorder that results from iron and other nutritional deficiencies. This syndrome is characterized by severe anemia and leads to difficulty swallowing.
  • Larynx: Exposure to airborne particles of asbestos, especially in the workplace.

Immigrants from Southeast Asia who use paan (betel quid) in their mouth should note that this habit has been strongly associated with an increased risk for oral cancer. Also, consumption of mate, a tea-like beverage habitually consumed by South Americans, has been associated with an increased risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, thyroid, and larynx.

Minimally Invasive Surgeries for Head and Neck Cancers

Our services include minimally invasive surgeries, such as:

Robotic surgery: We use robotic surgery to treat head and neck cancers. The DaVinci Surgical System® — advanced technology that magnifies the surgical field — gives our surgeons greater visualization, dexterity, and precision during an operation. This less-invasive surgical technique reduces scarring and improves outcomes.

Endoscopic surgery: Through this minimally invasive procedure, our surgeons remove tumors of the voice box, skull base, and neck using an endoscope. An endoscope is a thin tube equipped with a tiny light and miniature video camera that your doctor inserts into your body through a natural opening, such as your nose or throat, for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes. Your doctor views the images captured by the endoscope on a video monitor. If you undergo endoscopic surgery, you will be sedated to stay comfortable for the duration of the procedure.

Cranial-base surgery: Mount Sinai surgeons have developed techniques to remove skull -base tumors and vascular lesions endoscopically through the nose, leaving no visible sign of surgery. These techniques are also used to treat skull-base trauma.

Thyroid and parathyroid surgery: We perform minimally invasive thyroidectomies and parathyroidectomies through a one-inch incision. We believe that a team approach involving an experienced surgeon, a dedicated endocrinologist, and a team of physicians trained in nuclear medicine is of critical importance in the treatment of thyroid cancers.

These minimally invasive procedures allow our physicians to remove life-threatening tumors without making any incisions to your head or neck.