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Understanding your risk

Like other cancers, your risk depends on many variables, including:

  • Family history
  • Lifestyle behavior (e.g. smoking and alcohol use)
  • General health

Optum’s oncology department offers comprehensive cancer risk assessments and hereditary cancer genetics evaluation programs to help you identify your risk.


During a diagnostic evaluation, the doctor will first evaluate your medical history and discuss the frequency and length of symptoms with you. Because there are many types of head and neck cancers, there are a wide range of symptoms.

Before imaging tests are conducted, your doctor will give you a physical examination. This entails feeling for lumps around the neck, jaw, cheeks, gums and lips, as well as inspecting the inside the nose, mouth, and throat to determine if any abnormalities are present.

If your doctor decides further inspection is necessary they will use one or more of the following techniques to detect possible cancer:


Sometimes, a normal physical examination doesn’t provide the doctor with enough information. That is when a flexible imaging device called an endoscope is inserted through the nose so that the doctor can examine the inside of the pharynx or larynx.


When cancer is suspected to exist in the neck area, you may be asked to swallow a small amount of barium while an x-ray is performed. The barium will help doctors see if any abnormalities exist in the swallowing passage.

Panoramic radiograph

If a growth is suspected to be near your jawbone or bony area of the roof of the mouth, some doctors may choose to perform a panoramic radiograph. This procedure provides images from several angles of these two areas.

MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging)/ CT scan (computed tomography)

When cancerous growths are suspected in the tonsils, tongue, neck, larynx or elsewhere, an MRI is performed. This style of imaging is effective at providing detailed images of soft tissue.


Once a growth or abnormal tissue is identified, doctors will perform a biopsy to determine if it is cancerous. The doctor will obtain a sample of the tissue and send it to a pathologist to be tested. If the results determine that cancer is present, treatment will need to be administered.

Types of head and neck cancer

Cancers of the head and neck are categorized by the area where the cancer starts:
Cancer regions
Specific areas affected
Symptoms and indications
Oral cavity
Cheek lining, lips, tongue, gums, the mouth floor, and the roof of the mouth
Swelling, unusual bleeding, pain, and/or white or red patches in the tissues of the mouth
Pharynx (the tube that connects the nose and esophagus)
The area of the pharynx behind the nose, the tonsils, base of the tongue, and the part of the pharynx that connects to the esophagus
Difficulty swallowing, decreased hearing ability, pain with swallowing, persistent sore throat, ear pain, blood in sputum
Larynx (the voice box)
Vocal cords, epiglottis (the tissue that covers the larynx and surrounding tissue)
Voice change, hoarseness, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, ear pain, blood in sputum
Paranasal sinus and nasal cavity
The sinuses that surround the nose and the hollow area inside the face and skull
Frequent sinus infections that do not clear, headaches, nosebleeds, and nasal obstruction
Salivary glands
The glands are located in the cheeks, mouth, and under the jaw
Swelling around the cheeks, jaw or chin, pain in the face, chin, or neck, facial weakness


The type of treatment that is recommended will depend on multiple factors:

  • The stage of the cancer, the location of the cancer and the type of cancer
  • Your ability to eat, breathe, talk, and drink
  • Your general health
  • A discussion of the treatment options between you, your family and your physician

The most common treatment options include:

  • Chemotherapy: a drug treatment that uses powerful chemicals to kill fast-growing cells in your body
  • Surgery: performed either before or after another form of treatment to remove the cancerous area

Medical care and help

To find a head and neck cancer specialist near you, visit our providers page.

Click here to learn more about Optum’s minimally invasive robotic assisted surgery options.

Contact us if you have any questions.

Medical Care and Help

To find a breast cancer specialist near you, visit our providers page.
Contact Us if you have any questions