From the HPV Vaccine to Self-Exams: Tips to Prevent & Detect Head and Neck Cancer

April 2, 2024
A volunteer doctor conducts a visual exam at a screening event hosted by the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance

A volunteer conducts a visual screening during an event hosted by the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance to recognize Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. Photo courtesy of the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance

We talk with the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance about risk factors, screening, and more to help you and your loved ones stay informed.


Head and neck cancer is 2 to 3 times more common among men than women, but it has been increasing in women for several decades.1 Meanwhile, among men, HPV (human papilloma virus)-related throat cancers have been on the rise, and the incidence rate is expected to continue rising until 2060.2,3

Not all risk factors for head and neck cancer (HNC) can be controlled. But nearly all types of HNC, including oral and throat cancer, share some lifestyle risk factors that can be changed. What can you do to lower your risk of developing head and neck cancer? Are there ways to detect it early? 

To learn more, we turned to Amanda Hollinger, M.P.A., executive director of the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance. The nonprofit organization works to advance prevention, detection, treatment, and rehabilitation of head and neck cancer through public awareness, research, advocacy, and survivorship.


Could you tell us about the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance and its work?


The Head and Neck Cancer Alliance has its roots in an organization that was founded 30 years ago called the Yul Brynner Head and Neck Cancer Foundation. While the Alliance’s name and mission has evolved, the organization has remained steadfast in its commitment to increasing public awareness and early detection.

Over the past decade, the Alliance has increasingly focused on supporting patients and caregivers through the entire journey, from diagnosis through survivorship. We do this in a number of ways: by providing comprehensive educational programs resources; by providing patients and caregivers with one-on-one support; by building community connections; and by advocating for improved patient outcomes.

Why is the early detection and diagnosis of HNC so critical? 


When detected at stages 1 and 2, survival rates for head and neck cancer are significantly higher than when found at more advanced stages. Treatment may also be less invasive at earlier stages, leaving patients with fewer long-term side effects. 

How Is Head and Neck Cancer Treated? 


Currently, there isn’t a routine screening test for HNC. What are some ways to screen for and detect it early? 


While there is no screening test for head and neck cancer, dentists should provide regular screenings to look for signs of oral cancer, such as a red or white patch in the mouth lasting two weeks or longer, a growth or sore that doesn’t heal, or a lump on one side of the neck.

We also encourage the public to learn how to do an oral, head, and neck self-exam. There is a video and images on our website to walk people through how to perform a self-exam.

In addition, the Alliance partners with medical sites across the country to offer free screenings, especially during April in recognition of Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, but also throughout the year. Our website provides a map showing the locations of free screenings.

What are a few important ways people can reduce their risk of developing HNC?


Tobacco and alcohol use are two important risk factors, especially when used in combination. Not smoking, avoiding smokeless tobacco products, and limiting alcohol consumption can help reduce a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer.

HPV is another risk factor, with almost 70% of throat and base of tongue cancers now attributed to HPV, surpassing cervical cancer as the most common cancer associated with HPV.

Childhood HPV vaccination can prevent the majority of HPV-associated cancers, and the vaccine is now available to people up to age 45. The American Cancer Society recommends starting the HPV vaccine as early as 9 years old. 


Note: The HPV vaccine can prevent more than 90% of HPV cancers when it’s given at the recommended ages, reports the American Cancer Society. Read more about the HPV vaccine


Why can HNC be difficult to treat, and are there promising treatment options available now?


Treatment for head and neck cancer typically comprises a range of options such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, surgery, or a combination thereof.

Managing this condition presents numerous challenges, partly due to its tendency to be diagnosed at later, more advanced stages as well as its proximity to vital nerves, organs, and tissues affecting various aspects of a person's life. The effects of treatment can significantly impact functions like speech, eating, taste, and appearance. 

Long-term side effects pose a particularly daunting challenge for many patients, encompassing issues such as dental and oral health, damage to the carotid artery, difficulties with speech and swallowing, hearing impairment, and profound mental health concerns stemming from changes in appearance and the ability to engage in daily activities and social interactions post-treatment.

On a positive note, there are many patients thriving today and helping others by providing hope and support. There are also many clinical trials underway for head and neck cancer, which is a very promising thing to see. Clinical trials are an opportunity for patients to potentially benefit from tomorrow’s medicines today while still receiving the standard of care.

Discover More About Cancer Clinical Trials


How does the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance recognize Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, and how can people learn more and get involved?


During Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, the Alliance provides many opportunities for involvement. We partner with medical centers and dental offices to provide free screenings and are always looking for more sites to join us. We send out educational materials, T-shirts for the volunteers, screening forms, and publicity guides to the screening sites. 

We also have an event called the Move-a-Thon during the month of April. It's for patients, families, friends, industry, healthcare providers, nonprofits, and anyone that wants to join us to move for awareness. The Move-a-Thon celebrates patients and survivors and honors those we have lost. Funds from the event support patient programs, but you can join us without fundraising just to make a difference.



1. Head and Neck Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention. website.

2. Harris S. HPV-related cancers are on the rise in men. Nov. 10, 2022. Penn Medicine website. 

3. Underferth D. What men need to know about HPV-related throat cancer. March 2020. MD Anderson Cancer Center website.