Head and neck cancers describe a number of malignant tumors that develop in or around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses and mouth.
Many head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. This type of cancer begins in the flat squamous cells that make up the thin layer of tissue on the surface of the structures in the head and neck. Directly beneath this lining, which is called the epithelium, some areas of the head and neck have a layer of moist tissue, called the mucosa. If a cancer is found only in the squamous layer of cells, it is called carcinoma in situ. If the cancer has grown beyond this cell layer and moved into the deeper tissue, then it is called invasive squamous cell carcinoma.
If a cancer starts in the salivary glands, the tumor will usually be classified as an adenocarcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma or mucoepidermoid carcinoma.
ProHealth Care’s multidisciplinary approach involves a team of professionals working together to provide individualized cancer care. Team members include surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, otolaryngologists, oncology nurses, dietitians, cancer rehab specialists (such as speech therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists), social workers, an oncology nurse navigator and research staff.
Head and neck cancers include:
- Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer. The larynx is commonly called the voice box. The hypopharynx is the lower part of the throat that surrounds the larynx.
- Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer. The nasal cavity is the space just behind the nose where air passes on its way to the throat. The paranasal sinuses are the air-filled areas that surround the nasal cavity.
- Nasopharyngeal cancer. The nasopharynx is the air passageway at the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
- Oral and oropharyngeal cancer. The oral cavity includes the mouth and tongue. The oropharynx includes the middle of the throat, from the tonsils to the tip of the voice box.
- Salivary gland cancer. The salivary gland produces saliva. Saliva is the fluid that is released into the mouth to keep it moist and that contains enzymes that begin breaking down food.
Biopsy: A biopsy is the removal of cells or a piece of tissue that is then analyzed under a microscope by a pathologist. Only a biopsy can give a definitive diagnosis of a head and neck cancer.
CT scan: A computerized tomography scan uses a special computer to make detailed pictures of a patient’s internal organs and bones through the use of X-rays. The CT is very useful tool that helps the doctors look closely at the specific areas.
HPV testing: Human papilloma virus infection has been linked to head and neck cancers. Results can determine what treatments will be most effective.
MRI scan: This imaging test uses strong magnetic and radio waves to take pictures of the inside of the body. The test shows many details about organs, tissues and bones.
Molecular testing: Laboratory tests on tumor samples identify specific genes, proteins and other factors unique to the tumor. Results of these tests will help decide whether options include a type of treatment called targeted therapy.
Panoramic radiograph: This is a rotating, or panoramic, X-ray of the upper and lower jawbones used to detect cancer or evaluate the teeth before radiation therapy or chemotherapy. This often is called a Panorex.
PET scan: While a CT or MRI scan tells the doctor what an organ looks like or where a tumor is, a PET/CT scan shows how cells and organs in your body are working. Positive emission tomography often is used to find if cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves to create a picture of internal organs.
Treatment depends on the type of cancer and stage. Treatment may involve surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, targeted therapy or a combination of treatments.
Radiation: Conventional and intensity modulated radiation therapy uses a computer to aim radiation at tumors from outside of the body, killing cancer cells over time. Radiation is administered based on tumor size, shape and location. The intensity of the beams can be adjusted as needed to match the exact geometric shape of the tumor, minimizing damage to surrounding tissue. Generally, five treatments are required per week for a period of six to seven weeks. The treatments cause no pain and only last a few minutes each.
Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is the name of a group of drugs that destroy cancer cells. Unlike surgery or radiation therapy that treat cancer in a specific area, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment that travels throughout the body. Chemotherapy may be given alone or can be used as a radiosensitizer making radiation treatments more effective.
Targeted therapy: This approach uses a drug that specifically targets the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a protein on the surface of certain cancer cells that helps them grow and divide. This type of therapy slows or stops the growth of cancer.