You will face many hard decisions if a loved one or you have been diagnosed with head and neck cancer. Including several questions like where should you go for treatment? What are the available treatment options? How to maintain your quality of life? We have tried to describe these concerns, the types, and possible treatment, which will help you decide.
What Is Head and Neck Cancer?
Head and neck cancers include cancers that start in several areas of the head and throat, such as the sinuses, tongue, gums, roof of the mouth, larynx, lips, and salivary glands, but not including cancers of the brain and eyes. The common cancers that occur in the head and neck region include:
- Laryngeal Cancer - This cancer originates in the larynx or voice box. It is the second most common type of head and neck cancer.
- Mouth Cancer - Mouth cancer, also called oral cavity cancer, originates in the lips or the mouth.
- Tongue Cancer - The cells that line the tongue grow out of control and form a tumor.
- Nasal Cavity and Sinus Cancer - The cells in and surrounding the nose grow and multiply uncontrollably and form a tumor.
- Salivary Gland Cancer - This cancer originates in the glands that produce saliva. It is a rare type of head and neck cancer where the salivary glands' cells grow out of control and form tumors.
- Skin Cancer - Skin cancer commonly develops in areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun. The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma.
- Throat Cancer - A form of head and neck cancer that originates in the pharynx or throat, larynx or the voice box, vocal cords, or the tonsils.
- Thyroid Cancer - This cancer begins in the small gland called the thyroid, located in the front of the neck and below the larynx.
Noncancerous or benign tumors can also form in the head and neck region—for example, parathyroid tumors and salivary glands tumors.
What Are the Treatment Options for Head and Neck Cancer?
- Surgery - Surgery is the typical treatment for head and neck cancer. Minimally invasive procedures, such as laser microsurgery, robotic approaches, and Mohs surgery, are enough to remove some tumors. But others need complex head and neck cancer operations. Careful preparation and planning are a must, and MSK's surgeons use specialized techniques to preserve the key functions (speech and swallowing) and appearance. This is the benefit of getting head and neck surgery done by surgeons who are board-certified in head and neck surgery and have years of experience treating such types of cancer.
- Radiation Therapy - Radiation therapy for head and neck cancer can cure many patients. Radiation oncologists at MSK use advanced technologies to treat these cancers. Intensity-modulated radiation therapy and proton therapy are the most effective treatments for head and neck cancer. These techniques do not affect the patient's ability to eat or swallow and other such side effects.
- Immunotherapy - It is the most promising cancer therapy available today for people with advanced head and neck cancer. Immunotherapy uses the patient's immune system to fight off cancer. MSK scientists and doctors work closely to help develop new treatment modalities for patients who come to MSK for immunotherapy treatment.
Not everyone can benefit from immunotherapy, especially if cancer has recurred after standard treatment. Such patients can get more options with clinical trials. Such trials give you the opportunity to try a new treatment option that is not available elsewhere.
- Genomic Testing for Head and Neck Cancer -
In personalized medicine, the cells from a biopsy are screened for any genetic mutations. These gene mutations are linked to the type of cancer the patient has. Specific cancer drugs are more effective than others against cancer with specific gene mutations. This genomic testing can help determine the most effective therapy for a particular patient. Patients with advanced cancers (stage III or stage IV) and recurrent head and neck cancer have new treatment options with such advancements.
Memorial Sloan Kettering also offers a genomic-sequencing test called MSK-IMPACT™. This test identifies genetic mutations and other abnormalities associated with specific cancer. MSK-IMPACT can help the doctors rule out treatments that might not work and also recommend clinical trials designed to target those mutations.
- HPV-Associated Head and Neck Cancer -
The majority of cases of head or neck cancers are linked to alcohol and tobacco use, but infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) is becoming a leading cause. HPV-associated head and neck cancers usually affect the tonsils and other areas of the throat. The only positive to this is patients with HPV-positive tumors typically respond well to treatment and have a better prognosis. They might also require a less-intensive course of treatment, reducing side effects.
In case you have been diagnosed with head and neck cancer related to HPV, it is best to find out if you can benefit from a less-intensive treatment plan at MSK.