Head and neck cancer is a term used to define cancer that develops in the mouth, throat, nose, salivary glands, oral cancers or other areas of the head and neck. Most of these cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, or cancers that begin in the lining of the mouth, nose and throat. Eighty-five percent of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use, and 75 percent are associated with a combination of tobacco and alcohol use.
What Are the Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer?
Symptoms of head and neck cancer can include:
Head and neck cancers occur due to prolonged exposure to specific risk factors, such as tobacco use (e.g., cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, or snuff), excessive alcohol abuse, or exposure to HPV. Cancer of the lip may be caused by prolonged exposure to sunlight, and is also a major cause of skin cancer.
Treatment options depend on several factors, such as the stage of disease, type and location of the tumor, and the patient’s overall health. Treatment options for cancer are best discussed in a multi-disciplinary setting involving the surgeon, radiation oncologist, oncologist, pathologist, radiologist, speech and swallowing experts, as well as the patient and caregivers. Treatment options may include:
Surgery—The goal of cancer surgery is to remove the cancerous tissue and a ring of normal tissue around it. The surgery may also include removing lymph nodes from the neck. Reconstructive plastic surgery may be needed if the cancer is widespread and requires extensive tissue removal. These may include surgery to the tongue, jawbone, facial skin, pharynx, or larynx. In cases such as this, tissue from other parts of the body, like the forearm or leg, can be transplanted to give patients the best possible cosmetic and functional outcomes.
Radiation therapy—High energy X-rays are used to stop the growth of and kill cancer cells. Depending on the type and stage of cancer, radiation can be used as a stand-alone treatment or given after surgery with or without chemotherapy. A commonly used form of radiation therapy is intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), which concentrates radiation beams to the tumor while minimizing damage to the surrounding healthy cells.
Systemic therapy—Chemotherapy is the most common type of systemic therapy and destroys cancer cells through the bloodstream using one drug or a combination of drugs. Chemotherapy is often used in combination with radiation therapy either concurrently as primary treatment or after surgery as supplemental treatment. These medications are given in fixed doses as determined by the medical oncologist who monitors the response to treatment and any potential adverse reactions.
Immunotherapy improves the body’s immune system and helps fight cancer cells. This rapidly growing area of treatment options has shown promise in patients with recurrent or widely spread (metastatic) cancers. Pembrolizumab (KEYTRUDA®) and nivolumab (OPDIVO®) are examples of FDA-approved immunotherapeutic drugs for head and neck cancers.