Blog post

Head and Neck Cancer – the self-check that could save your life

Dr Elizabeth Marsh, Associate Professor in Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Derby, explains how a simple self-screening check could help catch head and neck cancer early. 

By Dr Elizabeth Marsh - 20 September 2023

This week is the Make Sense Campaign's Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. Sadly, weeks like these are important because, despite everything that happens within the head and neck – smiling, eating, drinking, talking, swallowing, and so forth – people still don’t know about Head and Neck Cancer.

Unfortunately, the incidence of Head and Neck Cancer is continuing to rise. It is now the 8th most common cancer in the UK, and the 4th most diagnosed in men, with around 12,500 people diagnosed with head and neck cancer in the UK each year…and yet, as I have just said, we are not really aware of it until it affects us.

Head and Neck cancers comprise over 30 different types of cancer that are classified based on where they are in the head and neck, and the type of cell that they originate in. They include cancers of the throat, thyroid, larynx, nose, sinuses, mouth, and salivary glands.

Early detection

If we can catch head and neck cancers early, then treatment has a higher success rate. But early detection doesn’t just save lives, it saves quality of life too. This video, produced in partnership with medical professionals and cancer charities, shows you how to check for the signs of head and neck cancer. 

Human Papillomavirus and cancer

The increase of head and neck cancers has partly been driven by Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the virus that causes cervical cancer; but whilst the incidence of these cancers has decreased, the incidence of head and neck cancers caused by HPV has increased, and has now overtaken that of cervical cancer. We now think that 40-60% of Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinomas (cancers of the tonsils and base of tongue) are HPV-positive. Our ongoing research at the University of Derby investigates the prevalence of HPV infection in the mouth of the healthy population, how HPV infection causes head and neck cancer, and whether we can detect any pre-cancerous changes associated with the development of the disease.

HPV vaccination

In the UK we have a very effective vaccination programme for HPV, with vaccination for boys and girls against the most common viral types occurring at school in year 8. We know that this vaccination offers protection for genital HPV infections, and the data is beginning to suggest that there is protection for oral infections too. Regrettably, our vaccination rates are lower than the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s 2030 targets, leaving young adults vulnerable to high-risk HPV infections. We need to increase this coverage in a bid to eliminate cancers driven by HPV.

Last week the subject of HPV vaccination was debated in Parliament, with Maria Caulfield, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, describing vaccination as a ‘game changer in preventing some cancers caused by HPV’. The debate concluded with a commitment to increasing vaccination uptake across all eligible groups. This is encouraging news for organisations such as the HPV Coalition, which is campaigning for increased vaccine uptake and has produced a roadmap to elimination of all HPV-related cancers.

Symptoms of head and neck cancer

Individuals with head and neck cancer are often diagnosed late, when the cancer has already started to spread, which makes treatment more invasive and more intense. That’s why it’s critical to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease – which include a persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing, ulcers or white patches in the mouth/throat that don’t clear up, and lumps/swellings in the jaw and throat – and to seek help from your doctor or dentist if you have any concerns.

Head and neck screening

Whilst we have very effective screening programmes for a number of cancers in this country, there is no such screening programme for head and neck cancer. It is recommended that dentists perform an oral examination at our check-ups, but we can also do this at home. Raising the profile of head and neck cancer, HPV, and self-screening for the early signs of disease is critical to help reduce numbers and save lives. We have teamed up with our medical colleagues at University Hospitals of Derby and Burton and University Hospitals Leicester, as well as our friends at the Oracle Cancer Trust and The Swallows, to produce a video promoting the self-screening process. It’s really easy: once a month, after you have brushed your teeth, check your mouth and neck, and get to know what’s normal for you; those two minutes could save your life.

The head and neck screen

Check along the insides of your lips and look at your gums. Are there any lumps, bumps, or red or white patches? Look at the back of your mouth. Stick out your tongue and move it from side to side. Don’t forget to look underneath too. Feel under and around your jaw. This area can sometimes be a bit lumpy if you’ve had a cold or other illness. So learn what’s normal for you. If you find anything that’s new or unusual, it’s time to see your doctor.

Please watch the video, follow the guidance, and share with your friends and family.

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About the author

Image of Elizabeth Marsh

Dr Elizabeth Marsh
Associate Professor in Cellular and Molecular Biology

Elizabeth is an Associate Professor. She leads the Metabolic Disorders and Cancer Research Centre, teaches across our Undergraduate and Postgraduate Biosciences programmes, and supervises students in their project work. Her research interests are in host-pathogen interactions and immunity, and she leads projects to understand the role of Human Papillomavirus in Head and Neck Cancers.

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