How not to miss head and neck cancer

How not to miss head and neck cancer

MercyAscot Head and Neck Service
2 minutes to Read
Rajan Patel
Mr Rajan Patel, leading head and neck surgeon at MercyAscot talks about red flag signs and symptoms that may suggest head and neck cancer

Head and neck carcinoma is now the sixth most common cancer worldwide.1 There are over 500,000 cases and 200,000 head and neck cancer-related deaths globally each year.1 In New Zealand, cases continue to increase with approximately 545 new cases in 2019.2

“The good news is that many of these patients can be cured if they are treated early enough3 which is why World Head and Neck Cancer Day on July 27 is such an important initiative,” says Mr Rajan Patel.

“The purpose of the day is to raise awareness of head and neck cancers amongst the public and health professionals, and help patients access the services they need at an earlier stage of disease.”

Head and neck cancer is a relatively common cancer worldwide, and typically affects men more than women - particularly those aged 50 and over.1

“There are several risk factors including UV or sun exposure (which relates primarily to skin cancer and melanoma), smoking, heavy alcohol intake, and human papillomavirus (HPV),” says Mr Rajan Patel.

“HPV exposure is increasing dramatically, and unfortunately we are seeing a corresponding increase in the incidence of throat cancer - particularly over the past two decades.”

Presenting symptoms and signs associated with head and neck cancer are common, and include a sore throat or a change in voice. However, a very small number of these patients would go on to have a sinister head and neck cancer diagnosis.

“Without the necessary equipment it is difficult for a GP to make an accurate diagnosis, which is why we have specialists at MercyAscot Head and Neck who are able to do this for patients presenting with red flag symptoms. If in doubt, we highly recommend you make a referral so that we can provide specialised care for your patient.”

According to Mr Rajan Patel, red flag symptoms and signs to watch out for when assessing patients with a potential head and neck cancer diagnosis can include:

  • A new neck lump that persist for three or more weeks
  • Any changes in the mouth such as oral ulcers, or swelling, or white or red patches that persist for more than three weeks
  • Change in the voice
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • One-sided nasal block or obstruction or
  • One-sided ear pain, with a normal ear examination

About the MercyAscot Head and Neck Service

The MercyAscot Head and Neck Service has a multidisciplinary team of health specialists who provide holistic care and a unique wrap-around support service for patients.

The team consists of head and neck surgeons, a specialist head and neck cancer nurse, dietitians, speech and language therapists, physiotherapists, as well as a clinical pharmacy and specialist pathology and radiology services.

One-stop diagnostic neck lump clinic

The MercyAscot Neck Lump Clinic provides a comprehensive and streamlined diagnostic service for patients with suspected neck lumps.

Each patient will experience a fast-tracked service (accurate diagnosis in a 45min appointment), eliminating multiple appointments and delays in diagnosis. Patients are looked after by a specialised multidisciplinary team, offering an end-to-end service, with only four days from diagnosis to a comprehensive treatment plan.

MercyAscot Head and Neck patient support group

As part of the unique wrap-around support service, MercyAscot Head and Neck has a patient support group led by patients who have been through the cancer journey.

To find out more about MercyAscot Head and Neck service

You may also like to complete a short course on neck lumps and earn CPD points. Click here


1. Head and Neck Cancer landscape in Asia-Pacific. Novotech – The Asia Pacific CRO. 2021. Accessed July 2021.
2. Ministry of Health. Accessed July 2022.
3. NICE. CKS: Head and neck cancers: recognition and referral. Accessed July 2021.