The Importance of Screening for Head and Neck Cancer

About Dr. Ryan Osborne

Ryan F. Osborne, M.D. is the Director of Head and Neck Surgery at OHNI and is an internationally renowned expert in head and neck oncology. He has developed a special interest for the treatment of parotid gland tumors and focuses on the use of minimally-invasive techniques in the care of patients needing parotid surgery.

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Michael Douglas has stage IV cancer

The actor tells David Letterman he feels optimistic about recovering from advanced throat cancer.

The Importance of Screening for Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer has been in the news lately, because Michael Douglas was recently diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer. “Throat cancer” usually refers to cancer involving the larynx (voice box) or the pharynx (throat) and falls under a group of cancers known as head and neck cancers.

Head and necks cancer risk factors include:

  • chronic tobacco and alcohol use
  • a genetic predisposition
  • reflux disease
  • certain viral infections
  • family history

However, occasionally no risk factors are present.

Throat cancers, such as the one that actor Michael Douglas has, typically present with symptoms of:

  • heartburn (reflux)
  • hoarseness
  • nagging cough
  • ear pain
  • sore throat
  • difficulty swallowing

What does stage 4 mean?

Cancer is staged on a scale from 1 to 4 based on numerous factors. Michael Douglas’s throat cancer was diagnosed as Stage 4, which means the tumor has spread to another area outside the throat. Stage 1 cancers are typically smaller tumors which have been detected early and carry a high cure rate. When diagnosed early there are many, less-invasive treatment options.

Stage 4 cancers are typically detected later, and have often spread to another location within the body. The cure rates are significantly lower in stage 4 cancers and the treatment options are more invasive and difficult to tolerate.

Your best defense against head and neck cancers is an early screening exam. A thorough head and neck cancer screen can be performed by your otolaryngologist/head and neck surgeon (ear nose and throat doctor).

A message from Dr. Ryan Osborne, Head and Neck Surgeon, Division of Head & Neck Surgical Oncology


Patients often underestimate the importance of being checked for head and neck cancer. They feel that they will “know” or “feel it” when something is wrong. The problem is that by the time you feel it, the problem has often progressed.

I have many patients come to me with more advanced cancer, having thought their primary care doctor or dentist would find a problem if there was one. However, this is not the case. Your Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor has a specialized camera to look into places where your primary physician cannot see.

The hardest cases for me are the ones where a patient had their throat pain checked by their primary care physician, and told it was a cold, only to find out a month later that it was advanced cancer. The head and neck screening exam is vitally important to prevent this.

Head and Neck Cancer Fact Sheet

The most common cancer of the head and neck is Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

The risk factors for head and neck SCC are as follows:

  • Tobacco products
  • Alcohol
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Epstein Barr Virus
  • Acid reflux
  • Genetics
  • Radiation exposure
  • Second hand smoke

Incidence in the United States of America for SSC of the head and neck is approximately 30,000 new cases per year.

  • 15,000 people die from SSC annually



Worldwide prevalence

  • 3rd most prevalent cancer
  • 1.6 million individuals are living with diagnosis of SSC of the head and neck

If you have any questions regarding head and neck cancer, or are interested in scheduling a screening exam with one of our board-certified head and neck surgeons, call 310-657-0123.

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To learn more about Dr. Ryan Osborne or head and neck cancer, visit:

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