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Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Head and neck cancers can be hard to diagnose because the symptoms are often like those of other common illnesses. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center experts use state-of-the-art technologies to diagnose and treat head and neck cancers.

If you have head and neck cancer symptoms or are at a higher risk for cancer, your doctor may order tests.

Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms

In the early stages, head and neck cancer often does not cause symptoms.

But as the cancer grows, symptoms may occur.

Symptoms will vary based on where the cancer is in the head or neck and can include:

  • Bleeding in your mouth or throat.
  • Trouble breathing or loud breathing.
  • Headaches.
  • Hearing problems or ear pain.
  • Lumps, bumps, or swelling in your mouth.
  • A lump or nodule in your neck.
  • Nosebleeds.
  • Numbness in your mouth.
  • Constant pain or numbness in your face, upper jaw, head, or neck.
  • Pain or problems with swallowing or chewing.
  • Patches of red or white on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth.
  • Persistent blockage or pain in the sinuses or nose.
  • Constant hoarseness or other changes in your voice, such as slurred speech.
  • Ringing in the ear.
  • A sore or ulcer in your mouth that doesn't heal in a few weeks.
  • Swelling around your eyes or double vision.
  • Swollen lymph nodes in your neck.

When to see a doctor

Be sure to see a doctor if your symptoms last for more than a few weeks or you have concerns.

Make an Appointment for Head and Neck Cancer Care

To make an appointment for head and neck cancer care at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center:
Call 412-647-2811. Or search for a UPMC Hillman Cancer Center near you.

Tests for Diagnosing Head and Neck Cancer

Your symptoms, type of cancer suspected, age, and medical history can help a doctor choose a diagnostic test.

Tests to detect and diagnose head and neck cancer may include:

These tests help your doctor better see the head and neck:

  • CT scan — uses a low level of radiation to take pictures of structures inside your body.
  • PET-CT scan — uses small amounts of radiation and radioactive dye to detect high levels of chemical activity in the body.
  • High-res MRI — uses a strong magnet and radio waves to take pictures of structures inside the body.
  • Ultrasound — measures the echoes of high-frequency sound waves as they bounce off structures of the body to produce images.

In a biopsy, doctors remove a small tissue sample for the lab to look at under a microscope for cancer cells.

The two most common ways to do this test are:

  • Endoscopic — uses a flexible tube (endoscope) with a camera and a light at one end. Your doctor inserts the scope through a small incision or through your nose or mouth. Then they use tiny surgical tools to take a tissue sample of the suspected cancerous site and send it to the lab.
  • Needle — passes a needle through the skin and into the suspected cancerous site. Your doctor then removes a small piece of tissue and sends it to the lab. You might have a needle biopsy in your doctor's office or during an imaging test like an ultrasound or CT scan.

Head and neck cancers can deplete the body of nutrients.

To help your care team detect head or neck cancer, they will take:

  • A blood sample.
  • Records of tobacco and alcohol use.
  • Your weight and height.

These tests can help cancer doctors assess your head and neck health by testing your ability to speak and swallow.

The results can also serve as a baseline to measure functional outcomes after cancer treatment.

Head and Neck Cancer Staging

Staging helps each member of the care team know the exact type, size, location, and spread of the cancer.

Your UPMC Hillman head and neck cancer care team will conduct tests to classify the type and stage of your cancer.

Knowing the stage of your cancer helps them decide on the best treatment plan.

What to Ask Your Doctor About Head and Neck Cancer

After you receive a cancer diagnosis, you may have some questions for your doctor. The good news is that your doctor and care team will be there to answer them.

Common questions include:

  • What are my next steps?
  • What are my head or neck cancer treatment options?
  • How long will treatment last?
  • What are the side effects?

Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is the only center in the southwest and central Pa. regions recognized by the National Cancer Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center.

When planning your head and neck cancer treatment, we look at:

  • The type of cancer you have.
  • The stage of your cancer.
  • Other factors that affect your well-being.

While we're here to treat your disease, our goal is to treat the whole person — not just your disease.

Make an Appointment for Head and Neck Cancer Care

To make an appointment for head and neck cancer care at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center:
Call 412-647-2811. Or search for a UPMC Hillman Cancer Center near you.

head neck cancer treatment

Head and Neck Cancer Screenings and Exams

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center offers a wide range of cancer screening and exam services.

Learn about head and neck cancer screenings.