Oral cavity, pharyngeal, and laryngeal cancers may be referred to as head and neck squamous cell cancers. Head and neck squamous cell cancers most commonly arise from the mucosal surfaces lining the oral cavity, pharynx, and larynx. Pharyngeal squamous cell cancers are further categorized into nasopharyngeal, oropharyngeal, and hypopharyngeal cancers on the basis of anatomical landmarks. Figure 1 shows the anatomy of the pharynx.
Figure 1. Anatomy of the pharynx.
Note: Separate PDQ summaries on Oral Cavity, Oropharyngeal, Hypopharyngeal, and Laryngeal Cancer Prevention and Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment (Adult) are also available.
There is inadequate evidence to establish whether screening would result in a decrease in mortality from head and neck squamous cell cancers.
Magnitude of Effect: No evidence of benefit or harm.
|Study Design: Evidence obtained from one randomized controlled trial and observational studies.|
|Internal Validity: Poor.|
|Consistency: Not applicable (N/A).|
|External Validity: Poor.|
Harms have not been systematically studied and cannot be quantified on the basis of the literature. However, there are some unavoidable harms that would be associated with routine screening, including:
Magnitude of Effect: Unknown.
|Study Design: Observational studies.|
|Internal Validity: Poor.|
|External Validity: Poor.|
Incidence and Mortality
An estimated 53,260 new cases of oral cavity and oropharynx cancers will be diagnosed in the United States in 2020, and an estimated 10,750 people will die of these diseases. The overall annual incidence in the United States is about 11 cases per 100,000 men and women; the incidence rate is highest in individuals aged 75 to 84 years.
From 2007 to 2016, incidence rates increased by about 1% per year among whites and declined by 1% to 2% per year among African Americans. The incidence has been increasing for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers related to human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. About 60% of oral/pharyngeal cancers are moderately advanced (regional stage) or metastatic at the time of diagnosis. The 5-year survival rate is 65%.
The estimated annual worldwide number of incidents of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers is about 275,000, with an approximate 20-fold variation geographically. South and Southeast Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), France, and Brazil have particularly high rates. In most countries, men have higher rates of oral cancer than women (caused by tobacco use) and higher rates of lip cancer (caused by sunlight exposure from outdoor occupations).
Laryngeal cancers are less common, with an annual incidence of 3 cases per 100,000 persons. It is estimated that 12,370 new cases will be diagnosed in the United States in 2020, and an estimated 3,750 people will die of the disease. The 5-year survival rate for laryngeal cancer is 60%. New cases of laryngeal cancer have been falling, on average, 2.4% per year in the last 10 years. This decline has been attributed to a reduction in cigarette smoking.
Hypopharyngeal cancers are rare, with approximately 2,500 new cases diagnosed in the United States each year and an annual incidence of 0.7 cases per 100,000 persons.[4,5] The 5-year survival rate for hypopharyngeal cancer is 26%. New cases have been falling, on average, 2% per year in the last 20 years. This decline has been attributed to a reduction in cigarette smoking.
Nasopharyngeal cancers are rare in the United States, with an annual incidence rate of 0.7 cases per 100,000 persons. However, there are marked geographic differences, with an overall incidence in China that is 40- to 380-fold higher than that in the United States. There are elevated rates of nasopharyngeal cancers in the Cantonese population of southern China (including Hong Kong), and intermediate rates are observed in several indigenous populations in Southeast Asia and in natives of the Arctic region, North Africa, and the Middle East. First-generation Chinese immigrants to the United States maintain a high incidence rate, while their descendants born in the United States show a decreased incidence. The 5-year survival rate for keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma, the most common subtype of nasopharyngeal cancer in the United States, is 46%.
The primary risk factors for oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and laryngeal cancers in American men and women are tobacco (including smokeless tobacco) use and alcohol use. Infection with HPV-16 has been associated with an excess risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma of the oral tongue and oropharynx.
Risk factors for nasopharyngeal cancer include heavy alcohol intake (but not smoking), family history, Chinese (or Asian) ancestry, and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) persistent infection.
Refer to the PDQ summary on Oral Cavity, Oropharyngeal, Hypopharyngeal, and Laryngeal Cancer Prevention for a complete description of factors associated with an increased or decreased risk of head and neck squamous cell cancers.
Evidence of Benefit Associated With Screening
No population-based screening programs for head and neck squamous cell cancers have been implemented in developed countries, although opportunistic screening or screening as part of a periodic health examination has been advocated for the oral cavity, which is the only site accessible without endoscopy.[10,11]
Screening for oral cavity cancers
There are different methods of screening for oral cavity cancers. Oral cavity cancers occur in a region of the body that is generally accessible to physical examination by the patient, the dentist, and the physician; and visual examination is the most common method used to detect visible lesions. Other methods have been used to augment clinical detection of oral lesions and include toluidine blue, brush biopsy, and fluorescence staining.
An inspection of the oral cavity is often part of a physical examination in a dentist's or physician's office. It has been pointed out that high-risk individuals visit their medical doctors more frequently than they visit their dentists. Although physicians are more likely to provide risk-factor counseling (such as tobacco cessation), they are less likely than dentists to perform an oral cancer examination. Overall, only a fraction (~20%) of Americans receive an oral cancer examination. Black patients, Hispanic patients, and those who have a lower level of education are less likely to have such an examination, perhaps because they lack access to medical care. An oral examination often includes looking for leukoplakia and erythroplakia lesions, which can progress to cancer.[13,14] One study has shown that direct fluorescence visualization (using a simple hand-held device in the operating room) could identify subclinical high-risk fields with cancerous or precancerous changes extending up to 25 mm beyond the primary tumor in 19 of 20 patients undergoing oral surgery for invasive or in situ squamous cell tumors. However, this finding has not yet been tested in a screening setting. Data suggest that molecular markers may be useful in the prognosis of these premalignant oral lesions.
The routine examination of asymptomatic and symptomatic patients can lead to detection of earlier-stage cancers and premalignant lesions. There is no definitive evidence, however, to show that this screening can reduce oral cancer mortality, and there are no randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in any Western or other low-risk populations.[14,17,18,19,20]
In a single RCT of screening versus usual care, 13 geographic clusters in the Trivandrum district of Kerala, India, were randomly assigned to receive systematic oral visual screening by trained health workers (seven screened clusters, six control clusters) every 3 years for four screening rounds during the period 1996 to 2008. During a 15-year follow-up period, there were 138 deaths from oral cancer in the screening group, with a cause-specific mortality rate of 15.4 per 100,000 person-years, and 154 deaths in the control group, with a mortality rate of 17.1 per 100,000 person-years (relative risk [RR], 0.88; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.69–1.12). In a subset analysis restricted to tobacco or alcohol users, the mortality rates were 30 and 39 per 100,000 person-years, respectively (RR, 0.76; 95% CI, 0.60–0.97). There was no apparent adjustment of the CIs for the cluster design. In another subgroup analysis, mortality hazard ratios were calculated for groups defined by number of times screened, but the inappropriate comparison in each case was to the control group of the whole study. No data on treatment of oral cancers were presented.[21,22,23,24]
Aside from the issues of generalizability to other populations and lack of an overall statistically significant result in cause-specific mortality, interpretation of the results is made difficult by serious lacks in methodologic detail about the randomization process, allocation concealment, adjustment for clustering effect, and information about treatment. The total number of clusters randomized was small, and there were different distributions of income and household possessions between the two study arms. Withdrawals and dropouts were not clearly described. In summary, the sole randomized trial does not provide solid evidence of a cause-specific mortality benefit associated with systematic oral cavity visual examination.
Techniques such as toluidine blue staining, brush biopsy/cytology, or fluorescence imaging as the primary screening tool or as an adjunct for screening have not been shown to have superior sensitivity and specificity for visual examination alone or to yield better health outcomes.[14,25] In an RCT conducted in Keelung County, Taiwan, 7,975 individuals at high risk of oral cancer due to cigarette smoking or betel-quid chewing were randomly assigned to receive a one-time oral cancer examination after gargling with toluidine blue or a blue placebo dye. The positive test rates were 9.5% versus 8.3%, respectively (P = .047). The detection of premalignant lesions was not statistically different (rate ratio, 1.05; 95% CI, 0.74–1.41). The number of overall oral cancers diagnosed within the short follow-up period of 5 years was too small for valid comparison (six in each group).
The operating characteristics of the various techniques used as an adjunct to oral visual examination are not well established. A systematic literature review of toluidine blue, a variety of other visualization adjuncts, and cytopathology in the screening setting revealed a very broad range of reported sensitivities, specificities, and positive predictive values when biopsy confirmation was used as the gold standard outcome. In part, this range of findings can be attributed to varying study populations, sample size and settings, and criteria for positive-clinical examinations and for scoring a biopsy as positive.
Screening for nasopharyngeal cancer
Serum EBV–associated antibodies and circulating cell-free EBV DNA testing have been used for nasopharyngeal cancer diagnosis and screening. In an observational study of 20,349 men aged 40 to 62 years, circulating cell-free EBV DNA testing was used to screen for nasopharyngeal cancer.[9,28] Of the 34 patients, 1.5% of participants were double-screen positive and had further workup, leading to a diagnosis of nasopharyngeal cancer. The EBV DNA test had a sensitivity of 97.1% (95% CI, 95.5%–98.7%) and specificity of 98.6% (95% CI, 98.6%–98.7%). Without a control group, the study compared stage of disease at diagnosis with a historical cohort and found a higher proportion of stage I and stage II disease (71% vs. 20%; P < .001) and superior 3-year progression-free survival in the screen-detected population. However, the survival benefit in the study may also be caused by lead-time bias.
Other screening programs in southern China use EBV-associated antibodies, but their effects are difficult to determine because of lack of controls for comparison of survival outcomes.[9,29,30] In summary, current screening studies for nasopharyngeal cancer do not provide solid evidence of a benefit associated with screening for nasopharyngeal cancer, especially in nonendemic regions such as the United States.
Evidence of Harm Associated With Screening
Harms associated with screening for head and neck squamous cell cancers are poorly studied in any quantifiable way. However, there are some unavoidable harms that would be associated with routine screening, including:
An additional potential harm is misdiagnosis and resulting under- or overtreatment, given the subjective pathology judgments in the reading of biopsies of oral lesions. When 87 biopsy diagnoses of oral lesions were compared between 21 local pathologists and double-reading by two of three central pathologists in a multicenter study of patients with prior upper aerodigestive tract cancers, agreement was only fair to good (kappa-weighted statistic, 0.59; 95% CI, 0.45–0.72). In a bivariate categorization of carcinoma in situ plus carcinoma versus less serious lesions, the agreement was poor, but with very wide CIs (kappa statistic, 0.39; 95% CI, -0.12 to -0.97). The investigators in the same study analyzed an agreement between the local and central pathologists on clinically normal tissue adjacent to 67 biopsied, clinically suspicious lesions. The agreement on clinically normal tissue was better than for visibly abnormal lesions, but still not in the excellent range (kappa-weighted statistic, 0.75; 95% CI, 0.64–0.86).
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Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about oral cavity, pharyngeal, and laryngeal cancer screening. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Reviewers and Updates
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Levels of Evidence
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PDQ® Screening and Prevention Editorial Board. PDQ Oral Cavity, Pharyngeal, and Laryngeal Cancer Screening. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/hp/oral-screening-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389219]
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Last Revised: 2021-02-05
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