Head and Neck Cancer


Facing any type of cancer takes courage. But head and neck cancer is a very treatable and curable disease, especially when caught early.

The prognosis for those diagnosed with head and neck cancer is much better than many other cancers. However, treatments can affect your appearance, your sense of smell or taste, or your ability to speak or swallow. 

At Mercy, we’ve helped many people overcome head and neck cancer. Our goal is to use treatments that reduce complications without sacrificing effectiveness.

What is Head & Neck Cancer?

Your head and neck contain around 25 organs, muscles, glands and other structures. These include your mouth, nose, sinuses, throat, larynx (voicebox) and thyroid gland.

When cancer starts in one of these structures, it may be called “head and neck cancer.” More often, it is named for the area where the cancer started. Examples include:

  • Laryngeal (larynx) cancer
  • Nasopharyngeal carcinoma
  • Oral cancer
  • Paranasal sinus cancer
  • Throat cancer
  • Thyroid cancer

Symptoms of head and neck cancer vary, depending on the kind you have. They commonly include:

  • A lump in your neck or cheek
  • Persistent pain in your mouth
  • A red or white patch on your gums or tongue
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • Voice changes, including hoarseness
  • Chronic sinus infections
  • Frequent nosebleeds

Anyone can get head and neck cancer. But certain kinds, especially oral cancer and throat cancer, occur more frequently among people who use tobacco products or drink heavily.

The most common head and neck cancer in the U.S. and at Mercy is the cancer of the oropharynx (the middle part of the throat, behind the mouth). Ninety percent of these cases are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus to which most adults have been exposed.

An HPV vaccine that has been shown to prevent these types of cancers is available for children. However, the vaccine is not effective for adults. By the time we reach adulthood, exposure has already occurred.

Head & Neck Cancer Treatment at Mercy

Finding out you have head and neck cancer can feel devastating. You're not just worried about cancer itself. You may be nervous about the cosmetic or functional problems caused by treatment.

At Mercy, our goal is not just to help you beat cancer. We also care about your ability to enjoy a full, productive life after recovery. Your treatment strategy will depend on several factors. These include the location of cancer, and whether it’s early or advanced. Your treatments may include:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor. Your doctor will preserve as much healthy tissue as possible. We also offer reconstruction for patients who need to rebuild part of their jaw, tongue or other structures. Advances in surgical technology at Mercy make it possible to treat hard-to-reach tumors using robotic-assisted, minimally invasive techniques.
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Medication, including chemotherapy, targeted therapy or immunotherapy.

Following treatment, you may need physical, occupational or speech therapy. Mercy offers a wide range of oncology therapy services and support groups to help you strengthen skills such as speaking clearly or swallowing.

You can rest assured Mercy will be with you every step of the way on your road to recovery. We’ll provide the medical care and emotional support you need to conquer your fears—and your cancer.

A Cancer Survivor's Story

Cindy Slater, Cancer Survivor

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