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Head and neck cancers can include:

Oral Cancers

The oral cavity has many parts. It includes the lips, inner cheeks, gums, teeth, jaw, tongue, floor of the mouth, and hard palate. The soft palate, and tonsils are at the back of the mouth. Salivary glands throughout the oral cavity make saliva, which keeps the mouth moist and helps digest food.

Cancer may develop in any part of the oral cavity. Most often it is found on the lips, the lining of the cheeks, the gums, and the floor of the mouth. The tongue, the area directly behind the wisdom teeth, the pharynx, and the tonsils are other common sites.

Oral cancer can occur at any age but more than 90% of all oral cancers are found in people over 45.

Everyone should perform a monthly oral self-exam by using a mirror to look for changes in the color of the gums, lips, or cheeks, as well as scabs, cracks, sores, swelling, bleeding, or thickening in any area of the mouth.

If any of the following symptoms exist and continue for more than 2 weeks it is important to see a dentist or doctor.

  • A sore in the mouth that bleeds easily and does not heal
  • A lump or thickening in the cheek that can be felt with the tongue
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth,
  • Soreness or a feeling that something is caught in the throat,
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing,
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue,
  • Numbness of the tongue or other areas of the mouth,
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable.

Pain is usually not a sign of early oral cancer. Earaches lasting more than 2 weeks should always be checked by a doctor as this type of pain can accompany oral cancer in later stages.

A biopsy is the only definitive test for oral cancers and usually can be done in the doctor's office. Some biopsies may be done under anesthesia in a hospital setting.

Oral cancers can be treated with surgery or radiation or a combination of both. To date chemotherapy has not proven particularly effective in treating oral cancers.

Oral cancer patients, specifical laryngectomees, may get particular help from the Web Whispers organization, reachable by computer with modem at This group consists of laryngectomees, caregivers, and speech-language pathologists and related medical professionals.

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Brain Cancers

Malignant brain tumors contain cancer cells. They interfere with vital functions and are life threatening. Malignant brain tumors are likely to grow rapidly and crowd or invade the tissue around them.

Although brain tumors can occur at any age studies show that they are most common in two age groups:

  • Children 3 to 12 years old
  • Adults 40 to 70 years old

The most common brain tumors are gliomas and there are several types of these:

  • Astocytomas which may grow anywhere in the brain or spinal cord.
  • Brain stem gliomas occur in the lowest, stemlike part of the brain.
  • Ependymomas usually develop in the lining of the ventricles. They also may occur in the spinal cord. This type of tumor is most common in childhood and adolescence.
  • Oligodendrogliomas occur in the cells that produce myelin, the fatty covering that protects nerves. These tumors usually develop in the cerebrum. They grow slowly and usually do not spread into surrounding brain tissue.

Other types of brain tumors that do not begin in glial tissue are:

  • Medulloblastomas, which develop from primitive nerve cells that normally do not remain in the body after birth.
  • Meningiomas, which grow very slowly. The brain may be able to adjust to the slow growth and the tumor may grow quite large before it causes symptoms.
  • Schwannomas begin in Schwann cells which produce the myelin that protects the nerves associated with hearing.
  • Craniopharyngiomas develop in the region of the pituitary gland near the hypothalamus.
  • Germ cell tumors arise from primitive sex cells.
  • Pineal region tumors occur in or around the pineal gland, a tiny organ near the center of the brain.

Symptoms of brain tumors depend on their size and location. The most frequent symptoms of brain tumors include: headaches, seizures, nausea or vomiting, weakness or loss of feeling in the arms or legs, stumbling or lack of coordination, abnormal eye movements, drowsiness, changes in personality or memory, and changes in speech.

Diagnosis of brain tumors may involve a CT (or CAT) scan, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), A skull x-ray, a brain scan, an angiogram or arteriogram, or a myelogram.

Treatment will depend on the type, location, and size of the tumor as well as the patient's age and general health. Treatment methods and schedules often vary for children and adults.

If you have been diagnosed with a brain tumor you may want to learn as much as you can about your specific tumor and treatment choices.

Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or a combination of these.

Read our resources on Head and Neck cancers.

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material for this page excerpted from NIH documents with permission


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