Burgundy ivory ribbon awareness, symbolic bow color for head and neck cancer

Understanding Head and Neck Cancer

In our new education program, we help you become your own best advocate


From the desk of Beth Battaglino, RN, CEO, HealthyWomen

Head and neck cancer is a catch-all term that includes cancers of the lips, mouth, voice box, throat and salivary glands. When caught early, these cancers have a very good prognosis, with five-year survival rates of 70% to 90% with treatment. Unfortunately, most cases aren't diagnosed until they've reached a later stage, making treatment much less effective.

You may wonder, if treatment works so well for early-stage head and neck cancer, why aren't more people diagnosed before their cancer advances?

HealthyWomen's new education program explores what's stopping people from getting care sooner. We know racial and socioeconomic disparities can be a barrier. We also know that the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in people skipping preventive care and routine screenings. What's more, head and neck cancer caused by HPV may carry stigmas that make people less likely to bring up symptoms with their healthcare providers.

And, because head and neck cancer includes several types of cancer, symptoms of these cancers are many and varied. Some of the most common ones, such as a chronic sore throat or hoarse voice, can be mistaken for a sign of something else, like a cold.

As Lisa Reed told HealthyWomen, "I knew there was something more to the lump I felt in my throat. But it still took 2 1/2 months in 2007 and several visits to an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) to convince her to look harder and deeper at my symptoms. Eventually, the ENT did an endoscopy and found a finger-like growth in the back of my throat. After a biopsy the next morning, I heard the dreaded news: It was cancer."

While receiving a head and neck cancer diagnosis is overwhelming, what you or a loved one does next is critical. Eleni Rettig, M.D., a head and neck surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School, shares the questions you should ask your healthcare provider. We also help you understand your risk factors and the different types of head and neck cancers — and we offer advice on symptoms, early screenings and treatment options.

For Susan Decker McLaughlin, it started with a swollen lymph node, a small painless bump on the left side under her jawbone and back molars. After receiving her diagnosis, she explained, "I was scared and shocked: I'd never heard of salivary cancer before, and there was no known cause."

Susan added, "This journey has taught me that I can't be afraid to speak up when something doesn't feel right. Doctors might know more about medical conditions, but they don't know your body better than you do. If you're not feeling well, trust yourself — and then fight as hard as you can to get the care you deserve."

My greatest hope is that you take this important advice, and like Susan, become your own best advocate.

In good health,
Beth Battaglino

This resource was created with support from Merck.