First-of-its-kind Study Shows Most Common Initial Symptoms of Throat Cancer are Neck Mass and Sore Throat

March 31, 2014

Free Head and Neck Cancer Screenings at Mass. Eye and Ear on April 24

Contact: Karen Dombek

BOSTON (March 31, 2014) -- A first-of-its-kind study shows that sore throat and neck mass are the most common initial symptoms of a form of oral, head and neck cancer that is rapidly increasing in incidence, oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC). The study, published online March 20, 2014 in JAMA Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery, cites sore throat as the most likely initial symptom in patients with OPSCC unrelated to human papillomavirus (HPV), while a lump in the neck is more likely in HPV-associated throat cancer. The Head & Neck Cancer Alliance (HNCA) is urging individuals who have these symptoms and all who may be at risk for these life-threatening cancers to take advantage of free oral, head and neck cancer screenings being held at Mass. Eye and Ear, 243 Charles Street, Boston, and more than 200 other sites in the US during the 17th annual Oral, Head & Neck Cancer Awareness Week (OHANCAW®), April 20 through 26.

  • The free cancer screening will be held at Mass. Eye and Ear, 243 Charles Street, Boston from 8:30 to noon on Thursday, April 24.
  • Spaces are limited, so sign up today. To reserve your spot, call Mass. Eye and Ear at 617-573-4084.

.“The prevalence of HPV-positive oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma has increased dramatically in young adults, a group traditionally at low risk for throat cancer,” said Terry Day, MD, President of the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance and a co-author of the study. “This study provides evidence supporting neck mass and sore throat as the initial symptoms of HPV-positive and HPV-negative oropharyngeal cancer, respectively. Our hope is that the results enable physicians and dentists the opportunity for detection and treatment of these tumors at earlier stages, giving patients a more favorable prognosis and quality of life, but that process must begin with screening.”

“I know from my own experience that early diagnosis of throat cancer is vital to successful treatment and survival of this disease,” said Academy Award-winning actor and producer, Michael Douglas. “I urge the public to take advantage of the free screenings being held through the country during Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week.”

HPV has recently emerged as a leading cause of oropharyngeal (tonsil and base of tongue) cancer, particularly in non-smokers and younger age groups. It is thought that these cancers are related to oral sex. While the majority of all head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco and alcohol use, over half of tonsil and base of tongue cancers are linked to HPV.

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 118,000 new cases of head and neck cancers will be diagnosed in 2014, resulting in an estimated 14,000 deaths.

“These staggering statistics further underscore the need for screening because when oral, head and neck cancers are diagnosed early, these potentially deadly diseases can be more easily treated without significant complications, and the chances of survival increase,” said Jatin P. Shah, M.D., Ph.D, a world leader in head and neck cancer surgery who is Professor of Surgery at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, Chief of the Head and Neck Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and a member of the HNCA Board. “Many Americans do not recognize the symptoms of these cancers, which highlights the importance of everyone getting screened properly, not just those at high risk such as tobacco and alcohol users.”

About the Study
Medical records from 88 patients were evaluated at the Head and Neck Tumor Center Multidisciplinary Clinic, Hollings Cancer Center, Medical University of South Carolina from Jan. 1, 2008 to May 20, 2013. The study was designed to analyze the most common initial symptoms in patients with OPSCC and to determine if any differences in initial symptoms occur between HPV-positive and HPV-negative tumors. Researchers reviewed medical records of newly diagnosed, previously untreated OPSCC patients with documented HPV tumor status. Initial symptoms (defined as the symptoms of longest duration when patient presented to his or her primary care physician) were extracted from all notes in the patient’s medical history.

Neck mass, 44 percent, and sore throat, 33 percent, were the most common initial symptoms in OPSCC. Patients who were HPV-positive were more likely to initially notice a neck mass than HPV-negative patients (51 percent vs. 18 percent), whereas HPV-negative patients were more likely to experience a sore throat (53 percent vs. 28 percent), dysphagia, trouble swallowing, (41 percent vs. 10 percent) or odynophagia, soreness when swallowing, (24 percent vs. 6 percent) when compared to HPV-positive patients.

About Oral, Head and Neck Cancer (OHNC)
OHNC is a common form of cancer affecting any part of the oral cavity, pharynx, throat, thyroid and larynx (voice box). Regular check-ups can detect the early stages of head and neck cancer or conditions that may lead to it. For those cancers caught at a later stage, treatment is available and may require various combinations of surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy. More information regarding the signs, symptoms and risk factors associated with oral, head and neck cancer can be found at

Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week®, coordinated by the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance, is a week dedicated to promoting education, prevention, screening and early detection of mouth and throat cancers. OHANCAW is highlighted by free screenings held at participating medical centers across the country.

The 17th annual Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week will be held April 20 – 26, 2014. Bristol-Myers Squibb has provided funding for free screenings as part of the company’s support of OHANCAW. For more information, please visit the OHANCAW website at

About the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance
The Head and Neck Cancer Alliance (HNCA), started in 1984 as the Yul Brynner Head and Neck Cancer Foundation, is hoping to reduce incidence and increase survival through these efforts. Its mission is to advance prevention, detection, treatment and rehabilitation of oral, head and neck cancer through public awareness, research, advocacy and survivorship. Through united and collaborative efforts, HNCA provides support to head and neck cancer patients throughout the year, supports ongoing research in head and neck oncology and educates children and adults in the disease process, treatment and prevention of oral, head and neck cancer.