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Head and Neck Tumors

Head and neck tumors are those that grow in the nose, sinuses, mouth (oral cavity), throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), salivary glands, lymph nodes in the neck, thyroid gland or parathyroid glands. They can be cancerous or noncancerous (benign).

Benign head and neck tumors 

Benign head and neck tumors include the following:

  • Lipomas (fat cell tumors)
  • Cysts (pockets of tissue usually filled with fluid or pus)
  • Thyroglossal duct cysts
  • Branchial cleft cysts
  • Thyroid

Cancerous head and neck tumors

Cancerous head and neck tumors are often squamous cell cancers, meaning they originate in the squamous cells that line the moist surfaces inside of the head and neck. There are many types of head and neck cancer:

  • Throat cancer, including laryngeal (voicebox), nasopharyngeal, hypopharyngeal (gullet) and salivary gland cancer
  • Oral cancer (mouth cancer) and oropharyngeal
  • Paranasal sinus and nasal cavity
  • Thyroid cancer

In addition to cancers that start in the head and neck, squamous cell cancer can spread (metastasize) to the lymph nodes in the neck from another part of the body. When doctors can’t figure out where the cancer cancer cells came from, it is called metastatic squamous neck cancer with unknown primary.

How can I get help for head and neck tumors?

Because head and neck cancers can spread quickly to nearby lymph nodes or other parts of the body, including the lungs, it’s important to get a fast, accurate diagnosis. See your primary care doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • A lump or sore that does not heal
  • Bleeding through the nose
  • Changes in your voice or hoarseness
  • Chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics
  • Frequent headaches
  • Numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face
  • Pain in the face, chin, neck or throat that does not go away
  • Pain or ringing in your ears (tinnitus), or trouble hearing
  • Sinuses that are blocked and do not clear
  • Sore throat that does not go away
  • Swelling or other trouble with the eye
  • Swelling of the jaw that affects how your dentures fit or feel
  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia) or pain when swallowing
  • Unusual bleeding or pain in your mouth
  • White or red patch on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth

Many of these are symptoms of multiple conditions, so it’s important to be evaluated by a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis.

Care for head and neck tumors at Rush

Head and neck tumors can be challenging to treat because they grow near the brain, spine, vital nerves and major blood vessels. Removing them can affect a person's ability to eat, speak, see, hear, smell or taste.

Treatment depends on several things:

  • Where the tumor is located
  • The stage of the cancer (if your tumor is cancerous)
  • Your age and general health

At Rush, people with head and neck tumors are cared for by a team of experts. Their goal is to effectively treat your tumor while, as much as possible, preserving your appearance and quality of life. Your personalized treatment plan may involve one or more of the following:

  • Monitoring. For noncancerous head and neck tumors that are not causing symptoms, your doctor may recommend a wait-and-see approach. If the tumor grows and starts to create problems, it may need to be removed.
  • Surgery. At Rush, some head and neck tumors can be removed through a minimally invasive approach that enables patients to go home sooner and often recover faster and with less pain. Surgeons at Rush offer the latest surgical techniques, including transoral robotic surgery.
  • Radiation therapy (intensity-modulated radiation therapy or proton beam therapy) is commonly used for these reasons:
    • After surgery, to destroy any remaining tumor cells
    • To treat tumors that recur (come back)
    • To try and slow the growth of tumors that can’t be removed with surgery
  • Chemotherapy, used alone or combined with radiation therapy and/or surgery
  • Targeted therapy drugs that block a tumor protein called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) may help stop or slow the growth of certain types of head and neck cancer
  • Rehabilitation is an important component of head and neck tumor care. Often, surgery to remove a head and neck tumor can affect a person’s ability to speak, swallow or eat. In these cases, you may be referred for one or more of the following:
    • Physical therapy
    • Occupational therapy
    • Speech therapy
    • Dietary counseling
    • Learning how to care for a stoma, an opening created in the windpipe through which a person breathes after surgery to remove the larynx
  • Reconstructive and plastic surgery may be needed after tumor removal surgery to rebuild bones or tissues.

Why choose Rush for head and neck tumor care

  • The specialists at the Rush Skull Base Surgery Center collaborate to provide the least invasive but most effective treatment possible, including minimally invasive surgery to remove the tumors and targeted radiation therapy that kills microscopic tumor cells without harming healthy surrounding tissue.
  • For head and neck cancers, ENT surgeons have expertise in transoral robotic surgery (TORS), which allows for significantly less scarring than open procedures. Typically, open surgeries require the splitting of bones and other structures in the mouth and throat. In contrast, with a TORS procedure, patients typically have a scar of several millimeters and no splitting of the bones.
  • The Rush University Cancer Center received the 2014 Outstanding Achievement Award from the American College of Surgeons' Commission on Cancer. Rush received this triennial award all four times since the award was created in 2004. The award recognizes programs that excel in providing quality cancer care.

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