Every year, approximately 48,000 Americans are diagnosed with a head or neck cancer or about 5% of all cancers in the US. The head and neck region is made up of soft tissue, bones, skin, and many glands and organs, so cancers in this area are numerous and varied. Head and neck cancers can occur in the throat, larynx (voice box), nose, sinuses, and mouth.
This is the most common of the head and neck cancers and often begins in the tongue, lip, floor of the mouth, or the minor salivary glands. Other oral cancers occur in the gums and elsewhere in the mouth. About 30,000 cases of oral cancer are diagnosed in the US annually.
Laryngeal cancer (cancer of the larynx or voice box) usually occurs in men and is the second most common head and neck cancer. Tobacco and alcohol use, as well as exposure to certain workplace pollutants and chemicals can increase the risk of this cancer.
Pharyngeal (Throat) Cancer
About 11,800 people in the US develop pharyngeal cancers every year. Tumors in the throat can occur in the nasopharynx (the upper part of the throat behind the nose), the oropharynx (the middle part of the throat), and the hypopharynx (the bottom part of the throat).
Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancers
These cancers are rare — approximately 2,000 people in the US are diagnosed annually. The tumors form in mucus-producing tissues lining the nasal cavity and the paranasal sinuses (hollow areas in the facial bones near the nose).
Women are nearly three times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than men and usually between the ages of 20 and 55. Thyroid cancer is one of the most curable cancers, with a 97% survival rate at least five years after diagnosis.
The parathyroid gland produces parathyroid hormone (PTH), which controls levels of calcium and phosphorous in the blood. Parathyroid cancer causes the parathyroid to make too much PTH, increasing the amount of calcium in the blood. This is a rare cancer that is diagnosed only about 100 times each year in the US.
These very general symptoms of head and neck cancer may also be caused by other medical conditions. Please note that each type of head and neck cancer may have a more specific group of symptoms. See you doctor for an accurate diagnosis.
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaws or tongue
- Numbness in the tongue or other areas
- Lump or swelling in the neck
- Frequent nosebleeds, constant nasal congestion
- Frequent sinus infections that do not respond to treatment
- Persistent sore throat
- Persistent hoarseness or a change in the voice
- Persistent pain in the neck, throat, or ears
- Mouth sore that won’t heal or bleeds easily
- Persistent red or white patch in the mouth
- Blood in the sputum
- Loosening of teeth
- Dentures that no longer fit
Treatment for head and neck cancer can affect speech, ability to swallow, and appearance, so your medical team works to minimize these side effects and help you cope with them. Our multidisciplinary approach incorporates minimally invasive surgery and reconstructive surgery options into your treatment plan.
As with most cancers, excising the tumor is often the first step in treating head and neck cancers. The location of these cancers means that plastic surgery may also be needed to restore the function and appearance of the affected area. Other surgical options can include:
Endoscopic Laser Surgery
— An endoscope with a high-intensity laser is inserted in the throat to vaporize or cut out the tumor.
Minimally Invasive Video-Assisted Thyroidectomy (MIVAT)
A tiny video camera attached to an endoscope is used to remove thyroid tumors via a very small incision.
The surgeon uses small robotic arms to remove tumors of the tongue and tonsils. Robotics allow the surgeon to make extremely precise movements in a very small space.
Radiation therapy can shrink tumors, kill remaining cancer cells after surgery or treat cancer that can’t be surgically removed.
- External-Beam Radiotherapy
External-beam radiotherapy is administered from outside the body, pinpointing the tumor area and surrounding tissues.
- IMRT Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)
can be effective in treating head and neck cancers. This technology can be focused very precisely so that healthy tissue near the tumor is not injured.
Tiny, radioactive “seeds” are implanted directly into the tumor site to deliver the highest possible dose of radiation without damaging nearby healthy tissue.
Chemotherapy, combined with radiation therapy, is a good treatment option for head and neck cancers, which are often difficult to reach surgically or cannot be treated by surgery alone. Chemotherapy can enhance the effectiveness of radiation therapy, improving cure rates for advanced cancers.
Radiofrequency Thermal Ablation (RFA) is a minimally invasive treatment option that destroys tumors with heat. This technology may be an option for localized tumors that cannot be surgically removed.
This form of radiation can be used in combination with other therapies to limit the radiation dose to healthy tissue.
Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is a protein on the surface of cells, which assists growth and cell division. Some cancer cells have too much EGFR, leading to uncontrolled growth and metastatic spread. Therapies that inhibit this process hold promise for slowing or stopping the growth of some cancers.
TARGETED MOLECULAR THERAPY
Chemotherapy affects cells throughout the body and can harm healthy cells as well as cancer cells, but molecular therapy specifically targets cancer cells with minimal damage to normal cells. Molecular targeted therapies disrupt cell processes that lead to abnormal growth and the development of cancer.
Exciting advances in cancer research brings us ever closer to more effective therapies and outright cures for head and neck cancers.
Researchers are investigating biologic gene manipulation to change the genetic code in a patient’s cells. Results show potential for treating head and neck cancer.
This developing technology injects a light-sensitive material into the tumor that “marks” cancer cells, but not normal cells. The marked cells are destroyed by a laser, which spares the healthy cells.
Research continues on the link between human papillomavirus (HPV) and head and neck cancers. Other studies are underway to determine if the HPV vaccine currently used to prevent cervical cancer might also prevent some head and neck cancers.