Head and Neck Cancer

March 30, 2017

Head and neck cancer refers to all cancers that originate in the lip, oral or nasal cavities, sinuses, larynx (voicebox) or pharynx (throat).

Many people have not heard the term head and neck cancer, but they do know somebody who has had cancer of the throat or voicebox.   Head and neck cancer refers to all cancers that originate in the lip, oral or nasal cavities, sinuses, larynx (voicebox) or pharynx (throat).

Tobacco and alcohol use are the most important risk factors for most head and neck cancers. Many studies have shown that heavy smokers and drinkers have a 30 fold increase in risk. Infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), thought to be transmitted through sexual contact, contributes to more than half of all cases of oropharyngeal cancer, a type of head and neck cancer. Gastroesophageal reflux can also be a factor. Although the incidence of many types of cancers is decreasing, the incidence of oropharyngeal cancer is increasing!

The signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer depend on the area that is affected. In general, a lump, sore that does not heal, persistent sore throat, change in voice, and difficulty swallowing may be noticed. These may be noted of other less serious conditions, as well. This may explain why less than half of all cases of head and neck cancer are diagnosed at an early stage. In general, any of these symptoms that last for more than two weeks and cannot be explained by another cause should be evaluated by a health care professional.

Standard treatments for head and neck cancers are dependent on the tumor location, the stage, and the patient’s age and overall health. The treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of treatments. Targeted cancer therapies are drugs that block the growth and spread of cancer by interfering with specific molecules that are involved in the growth, progression, and spread of cancer.

Survival has substantially improved for head and neck cancer patients over the past decade. This is due to better screening by clinicians, prompt evaluation and biopsy by an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist (also known as an Otolaryngologist), as well as advances in treatment. Although early-stage head and neck cancers (especially laryngeal and oral cavity) have high cure rates, up to 50% of head and neck cancer patients present with advanced disease; unfortunately, the more advanced the cancer, the lower the cure rate so it is of vital importance to detect these cancers early.