Applied Evidence

Head & neck cancers: What you’ll see, how to proceed

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What physical findings should raise your suspicion? How are tumors treated and what follow-up care can you provide? Here’s what you need to know.


› Do not treat a neck mass with antibiotics unless it has features consistent with infection. C

› Order laryngoscopy for all patients with ­hoarseness that does not resolve after 3 months—or sooner, if malignancy is suspected. C

› Order ultrasonography-guided fine-needle aspiration for diagnostic evaluation of salivary gland masses. B

› Manage a thyroid nodule based on its sonographic features, including size, consistency, and the presence of concerning features. B

Strength of recommendation (SOR)

A Good-quality patient-oriented evidence
B Inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence
C Consensus, usual practice, opinion, disease-oriented evidence, case series



The statistics reveal a serious problem: This year, an estimated 63,030 Americans will be given a diagnosis of head and neck cancer (which includes laryngeal, oropharyngeal, sinonasal, nasopharyngeal, and salivary gland cancer1); approximately 13,360 of them will die. Furthermore, thyroid cancer is the most rapidly increasing cancer diagnosis in the United States, with an estimated 56,870 cases in 2017.1,2 Major risk factors for head and neck cancer are tobacco and alcohol exposure and infection with Epstein-Barr virus and human papillomavirus (HPV).3

In this article, we review the background for each of the principal types of head and neck cancer with which you should be familiar. We also discuss how to evaluate signs and symptoms that raise suspicion of these neoplasms; outline the diagnostic strategy in the face of such suspicion; and summarize accepted therapeutic approaches. Last, we describe the important role that you, the family physician, play in providing posttreatment care for these patients, especially prevention and management of late adverse effects of radiation therapy.

General characterizationsof these cancers

Approximately one-half of patients with head and neck cancer present initially with a nonspecific, persistent neck mass that should be deemed malignant until proven otherwise, because a delay in diagnosis is associated with a worse outcome.4 In a series of 100 patients with head and neck cancer, for example, delay in diagnosis occurred in nearly 25%—most often because of time spent providing inappropriate antibiotic treatment.5 Guidelines for management of neck masses recommend against the use of antibiotics in patients who do not have evidence of infection.6

Patients with a neck mass that has been present for longer than 2 weeks or that is ulcerated, fixed to underlying tissues, of firm consistency, or > 1.5 cm should have a physical examination that includes visualization of the base of tongue, pharynx, and larynx. The mass should be evaluated with fine-­needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy, which has a positive predictive value of 96% and negative predictive value of 90% for the diagnosis of a head and neck mass. (Note: Anticoagulation therapy is not an absolute contraindication to FNA, which is not associated with an increased risk of bleeding.6)

Laryngeal cancer

What you need to know. More than 90% of laryngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Smoking or heavy drinking (> 8 drinks/d), compared to neither behavior, is associated with an increased risk of laryngeal cancer (odds ratio, 9.4 and 2.5, respectively).7 The risk of cancer is directly proportional to the degree of tobacco exposure.

One-half of head and neck cancers present with a neck mass that warrants appropriate initial assessment, so as not to delay diagnosis.

Laryngeal cancer occurs in the supraglottic region in one-third of patients; in the glottic region in one-half; and in the subglottic region in a very few.8 Glottic cancer presents earlier than supraglottic cancer with hoarseness, whereas supraglottic cancer presents with more advanced disease, causing stridor, dysphagia, and throat pain. (Note: Guidelines recommend against prescribing acid suppressants in patients with hoarseness who do not have symptoms of reflux.9)

Stage 1 and Stage 2 laryngeal cancers are localized; Stages 3-4B are locally advanced or involve lymph nodes, or both; Stage 4C is metastatic disease. Overall, 60% of patients have Stage 3 or Stage 4 disease at diagnosis.10

Continue to: What is the diagnostic strategy?


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