Head and neck cancer refers to several types of cancers that affect the head and neck areas of the body. The most common cause of these cancers is tobacco and alcohol use which are treatable if caught early, and are easily preventable.
Head and neck cancers are more common in men and people over age 50; these cancers include cancer of the:
Head and neck cancer tends to be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are usually mild and mimic other non-serious issues such as a cold or sore throat. These symptoms include:
Early detection and diagnosis are important for the successful treatment of head and neck cancers; when detected at stages I and II, the survival rate is over 80%. At more advanced stages, the survival rates are lower, the treatments are more invasive, and the side effects of treatments are much more significant.
Below are steps you can take to look for abnormal, irregular, and discolored areas. You can compare one side to the other for symmetry; if you find something out of the norm, you should contact your doctor for further examination. Repeating these steps routinely can help you identify issues quicker because you will know your body.
Step 1: Check the neck for lumps
Step 2: Look at your lips and cheeks
Step 3: Bite gently and look at your gums
Step 4: Open your mouth and look at the top, bottom, and side of your tongue, the back of your throat, the roof of your mouth, and under your tongue with a flashlight and mirror
The first step to treatment is to figure out what stage the cancer is in. Stage I and II cancers are typically mild, easy to treat, and don’t spread from their original location. Stage III and IV cancers have typically spread to nearby lymph nodes and/or are large tumors. These cancers usually call for more complicated treatment, but for the most part, can be curable. However, large tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, called metastatic tumors, are generally considered incurable but may be treated to help reduce symptoms. The stage, along with your age, general health, and location of the tumor, will determine your treatment path.
The three main courses of treatment for head and neck cancers are listed below:
Surgery - Surgery can be used to remove the tumor and some healthy tissue surrounding it; lymph nodes may also be removed if cancer is suspected to have spread to them. Surgery on the head and neck areas may change the patient’s appearance and ability to talk, chew, and swallow. For these reasons, patients may need to go through some therapy to help with speech and swallowing.
Radiation Therapy - This is done using a machine near the body involving the use of high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy can have side effects such as sores or irritation of the treated area, difficulty in swallowing or tasting, loss of saliva, decreased appetite, and nausea.
Chemotherapy - Chemo is the use of anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body; this is more commonly used for advanced-stage head and neck cancer. Side effects include sores in the mouth, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, rash, tiredness, joint pain, and hair loss.
Immunotherapy - This is a newly developing therapy option that uses drugs to block hormones that cause certain tumor cells to multiply. These treatments can make the tumor more sensitive to radiation and increase the chance of a cure. Immunotherapy helps your body produce cancer-fighting cells.
Many new therapies focus on decreasing the severity of the side effects of treatment while maintaining good progress towards a cure. There have also been breakthroughs in new ways of combining surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to help cure head and neck cancers. With the advancement of technology, every day there seems to be new ideas and new helpful tools when going through cancer treatments. It is not an easy path to take, but your team of doctors are always looking for new ways to help patients through these cancer treatments and get back to normal daily activities and life.
Head and neck cancers are very preventable. Most of them occur due to lifestyle choices that negatively affect the body. Below are a few things one can do to help prevent head and neck cancer: