Treatment for head and neck cancers ranges from surgery or radiation in the earliest stages to a combination of surgery, radiation and possibly chemotherapy in the later stages. Curing the cancer is the fundamental priority, and treatment may result in the removal and reconstruction of part of the facial and/or communication structures. 

Dr. Jose Zevallos, Chief, Head & Neck Oncologic Surgery

Since the treatment for these cancers may have wide-ranging effects on the organs of communication and swallowing, a minimally invasive transoral laser microsurgery and functionally restorative reconstruction can be considered when possible. 

Following surgery, therapists help patients adjust to changes, and a  survivors’ support group is available to lift spirits and help with recovery. Regular cancer checks are scheduled with the doctor for years after completion of treatment.

The multidisciplinary treatment approach is a major reason why the Department of Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery at Washington University is recognized as among the best in the country by U.S. News and World Report.

The Warning Signs

Knowing the warning signs of cancer is critical for early detection, especially for those who use tobacco. Symptoms of throat cancer include a change in voice quality such as hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, irritation and pain in the throat, coughing or spitting up blood, or the appearance of a lump in the neck or throat. Symptoms of mouth cancer may be bleeding or pain in the mouth, irritation around the gums, loosening of the teeth, a visible ulcer or a change in the way dentures fit.

To learn more about the signs of mouth cancer, read what Dr. Jose Zevallos, our Chief, Head & Neck Surgical Oncology, recently shared with U.S. News & World Report.

Read more about the warning signs»

Other Causes of Head & Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancers represent the sixth most common cancer worldwide. While it has long been associated with the use and abuse of tobacco and alcohol, the incidence of oropharynx cancers caused by the human papillomarivus (HPV) is on the rise. This means that cancers of the tonsil, throat and base of the tongue are now growing among the young, healthy, non-smoking/drinking population.

The prognosis of HPV-related oropharynx cancer is excellent, following transoral laser microsurgery. Washington University is one of the premier centers performing transoral laser microsurgery for head and neck cancer. 

Sometimes the cause of cancer cannot be identified, but there are other risk factors known to increase the chance for the disease developing in the head and neck area. The head, face, and neck are common sites for skin cancer to develop because of their continual exposure to ultraviolet rays. A visible abnormality — a persistent growth that starts to change in size, shape or color, or to itch — is an indication that cancer may be present on the skin.

Thyroid cancer, appearing as a lump in the throat, is another type that may have no obvious cause, but may be associated with a genetic abnormality or exposure to low levels of radiation in childhood.

Tumors also occur in the nose and sinuses with sometimes subtle warning signs. A progressive obstruction of the nasal passages; bleeding from the nose; facial pain; eye disturbances such as double vision or blurring; new onset of hearing loss, especially one-sided; a visible lump or mass — all of these can be signs that something is wrong.

If you have a personal health concern, contact your family physician or internist. If appropriate, your physician may then decide to refer you to a specialized clinic such as the Head and Neck Cancer Center at Washington University School of Medicine. If you have questions about the Head and Neck Oncology Division at the Washington University School of Medicine, please contact us at 314-362-7509 for more information.

Meet our team


Radiation oncology

Wade Thorstad, MD
Hiram A. Gay, MD

Medical oncology

Douglas R. Adkins, MD
Loren S. Michel, MD
Tanya M. Wildes, MD

Clinical outcomes consultant

Jay Piccirillo, MD


Azadeh Afshari, DDS, MSD

Physical therapy

Katie McDonnel, PT, DPT, OCS

Oral surgery

Allen Sclaroff, DDS
Alan A. Harvey, DMD

Speech and swallow therapy

Archie Harmon, PhD
Linda Neal, MA, CCC-SLP
Megan Radder, CFY-SLP
Kelsey Rosenquist, CCC-SLP

Social work

Cindy Woolsey, LCSW


Lenore Riganti, RD, CNSD, LD

Patient welfare coordinator

Claire Keefe, LCSW


International Physician Observer Program

The Head & Neck Surgical Oncology and Microvascular Reconstruction Program within the department offers a one-two month clinical observership program for international trainees and physicians. Participants observe faculty in the operating room, outpatient clinics and our weekly multidisciplinary tumor board.