Head and neck cancers affect approximately 40,0000 Americans every year and more than half a million people world wide. It is the fourth most common cause of cancer related death in the United States. The disease is slightly more common in men than women and typically affects people ages 55-75, although patients of all ages do suffer with this disease.
The most common risk factor for head and neck cancer is smoking or the use of chewing tobacco products. In fact the risk of acquiring head and neck cancer correlates directly with the number of packs per day and years smoked. Alcohol is another risk factor for these types of tumors and, when combined with smoking, increases the risk of head and neck cancer five and a half times more than doing either alone. Although this is true, head and neck cancer can occur in non smoking patients and has recently been associated with the human papilloma virus (the virus that causes cervical cancer as well). Often when a patient has had a head and neck tumor, they are at increased risk for developing other cancers in this area and need to be monitored closely to find any such tumors at their early and most treatable stage.
There are several different subsites for head and neck tumors and they include the oral cavity, the pharynx (the upper part of the feeding tube) and the larynx. Often these tumors spread regionally to affect the lymph nodes in the neck, or distantly to affect the lungs or potentially the liver or brain in advanced cases. Symptoms for head and neck cancer vary depending on site and can be quite insidious and include a neck lump, mouth ulcers that won’t heal, difficult or persistently painful swallowing, persistent ear or throat pain, voice changes and in more advanced cases difficulty breathing. These more subtle symptoms are one of the reasons head and neck tumors often get diagnosed in an advanced stage. If you are at risk for head and neck cancer and have any of these persistent symptoms you should notify your doctor.
Treatment of head and neck cancer has evolved over the past several years and can include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Depending on the location or size of the tumor one or all three of these modalities may be employed. Treatment of neck lymph node metastasis often involves an operation called a neck dissection where several or all of the lymph node basins on one side of the neck are removed (for more information about neck dissection click here). Cancers of the larynx once meant certain laryngectomy (removal of the larynx) but now many cancers are able to be treated with preservation surgery and or radiation and chemotherapy. Cancer of the oral cavity (tongue, gums and inside of cheek) is usually treated with surgery and may mean removal of parts of mouth structures.
We realize that head and neck cancer is a difficult disease for our patients to face. Our practice prides itself at being more than your doctor, but your advocate and friend as you face this difficult challenge. Our goal is to treat you and help you through this process while giving you the greatest options for cure. If you, or a family member have head and neck cancer or suspect you may, please feel free to contact us for more information.