What Are the Most Common Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms?

Cindy Quarters

Cancer of the head and neck is not a single kind of cancer, but any of a variety of different cancers, including throat cancer, brain cancer, and mouth cancer. With so many different areas involved, head and neck cancer can have many different signs and symptoms. Some of the more common include unexplained lumps, headaches, and difficulty eating or swallowing.

Many cancers can involve the lymph nodes.
Many cancers can involve the lymph nodes.

Lumps are often the first of the head and neck cancer symptoms to be noticed. With thyroid cancer, a lump may be felt from the outside, right over the thyroid gland in the front of the neck. Salivary gland cancer causes lumps in and around the mouth area. Many different cancers may involve the lymph nodes, glands located just below the jaw on either side of the neck, causing them to swell and become tender.

Cancer of the larynx is one type of throat cancer.
Cancer of the larynx is one type of throat cancer.

Symptoms such as changes to the voice can indicate cancer in the thyroid gland, larynx, or other areas of the throat. These may worsen as the tumor grows and the throat tissue becomes increasingly damaged. Voice chances typically occur when the cancer is growing on or near the larynx, or when tumor growth interferes with the function of the larynx.

Difficulty swallowing is also one of the more common head and neck cancer symptoms. It can be caused by any of the cancers that affect the throat area, including thyroid cancer, cancer of the larynx, and tonsil cancer. The problem is usually the result of the cancer growing into the open areas of the throat, blocking the passage of food and liquids.

Pain may be present with any type of cancer, depending on where it is growing. The pain is either located at the site of the cancer or it may be referred pain from another area, caused by a tumor pressing on a nerve or adjacent tissue. With cancer in areas of the head, where lumps cannot be felt from the outside, pain is often the first indication of a serious problem.

Frequent, unexplained headaches and vision problems are very common cancer symptoms. These can be caused by cancer anywhere in the head, such as on the optic nerve or in different areas of the brain. How strong the symptoms are depends on how large the tumors are and just where the cancer is growing.

Any or all head and neck cancer symptoms may be present with various types of cancer. It is important for people to recognize what is normal and what is not. Anything unusual that does not resolve itself within a short time should be examined by a medical professional to make sure it is not an indication of a serious problem.

Headaches and vision problems may indicate brain cancer.
Headaches and vision problems may indicate brain cancer.

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Discussion Comments


I was watching a baseball game last season, and I was surprised at the number of players and coaches who still chew tobacco. I thought with all of the information we have on the link between tobacco and throat and neck cancer symptoms fewer people would be using chewing tobacco, especially professional ballplayers.


One of the patients at the medical center where I go had mouth cancer, or it could have been another type of cancer, but it was located in her head. She had radiation treatments, which is common for cancer. I know several people who have had the treatments. Radiation treatments are not pleasant, but after the treatments are over you can usually put them behind you.

The radiation treatment this women went through caused her to lose her teeth because her cancer was in her face/head, so while she did get better, she was always reminded of the cancer when she looked at herself. She did have false teeth, but even with the teeth she was constantly aware of what she had been through.


One of my friends in college, noticed a lump in her neck one day. Up until then, she had not been sick, and showed no signs of any type of illness. She went to the medical center on campus, and they misdiagnosed her, and sent her back to the dorm with a prescription for antibiotics.

She took the antibiotics, and continued going to classes. She went on normally for a month or so until it was time for winter break. When I came back from winter break I learned that she had been diagnosed with neck and head cancer. She had started to feel poorly during the break and she had gone to her doctor, who sent her for tests.

She went downhill very quickly. She wasn't able to return to school because she was going through head and neck cancer treatment, and I lost track of her, but she never recovered from the cancer. It's amazing how quickly the disease caused her health to deteriorate.

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