Head and Neck Cancer
Head and neck cancers are named by the area in which they originate, such as the oral cavity, salivary glands, paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity, pharynx, larynx, and lymph nodes. The oral cavity refers to the lips, front part of the tongue, gums, inside lining of the cheeks and lips, and the bottom and top of the mouth. The salivary glands are located in the mouth near the jawbone. They produce saliva to keep your mouth moist. The paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity are small hollow spaces in the head and nose.
The pharynx is a hollow tube that extends from the nose to the esophagus and the trachea. It is about five inches long and consists of three sections, the nasopharynx, the oropharynx, and the hypopharynx. The larynx is your voice box. It is located below the pharynx in your neck. Head and neck cancer may include the lymph nodes in the upper part of the neck. Your lymph nodes normally help your body fight infections.
The majority of head and neck cancers can be linked to tobacco use. People that use tobacco and consume alcohol have the highest risk for developing head and neck cancer. Head and neck cancer is more common in men than in women. The majority of cases occur in people over the age of 55.
Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on many factors, including your overall health and the area, type, and extent of the cancer. Radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery, or a combination of treatments may be used to treat head and neck cancer. In some cases, radiation and chemotherapy may be used before surgery to shrink the tumor and preserve surrounding structures and function.
There are a few different types of radiation therapies that can be used for head and neck cancers. Radiation therapy is a painless procedure. Your doctor will prescribe the amount and length of treatment. Radiation therapy is usually delivered in several doses over a period of time.
External beam radiation uses high-energy beams to disrupt the growth of cancer cells. Radiation damages all cells, both healthy and cancerous, in the exposed area. Radiated cancer cells are not able to repair themselves or replicate. Your doctor may prescribe medication to prevent the side effects of radiation.
State-of-the-art technology has advanced radiation methods to help make them more effective and tolerable. Three dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D CRT) maps a tumor with imaging scans before treatment. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, computed tomography (CT) scans, and positron emission tomography (PET) scans are used to produce images of a tumor and its surrounding tissue. The images from the scans are combined with a computer called a multi-leaf collimator (MLC). The MLC produces a 3D image of the cancer and formulates a treatment plan specifically for the 3D image. This allows direct multiple beams of radiation to be targeted precisely at the tumor and spare as much healthy tissue as possible.
Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a refined type of 3D CRT. IMRT allows the radiologist to sculpt the edges of a tumor, sparing healthy tissue. With IMRT, the radiation dose can be changed during a treatment session. In the past, radiation was delivered in one dose, from the beginning to the end of a treatment session. IMRT allows the radiation dose to alter and conform more specifically to the shape of the tumor while minimizing the dose received by healthy tissues.
Brachytherapy is used to destroy cancer cells from an internal source of radiation. Radiation from internally placed radioactive seeds disrupts the growth of cancer cells. Brachytherapy spares as many healthy cells as possible because it directs radiation to only a specific area. There are different types of brachytherapy. Intracavity brachytherapy involves placing the radioactive seeds inside a natural body cavity, such as the throat or windpipe. Interstitial brachytherapy involves implanting radioactive seeds into or near a cancer tumor. Brachytherapy can be delivered in high dose rates (HDR) or low dose rates (LDR). HDR brachytherapy is delivered for several minutes and then withdrawn. LDR brachytherapy remains in the body longer.
Chemotherapy may be used to help treat some types of head and neck cancer and to help shrink cancer tumors before they are removed with surgery. Chemotherapy consists of cancer fighting drugs that are given in a series of treatments over time. There are many types of chemotherapy. Your doctor may prescribe medication to help reduce the side effects of your treatment. In some cases, surgery may be used to remove the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it.
The experience of head and neck cancer and cancer treatments can be an emotional process for people with cancer and their loved ones. It is important that you receive support from a positive source. Some people find comfort in their family, friends, counselors, co-workers, and faith. Cancer support groups are another good option. They can be a source of information and support from people who understand what you are experiencing. Ask your doctor for cancer support group locations in your area.
Am I at Risk
Researchers have identified risk factors that may increase the likelihood of developing head and neck cancer. People with all of the risk factors may never develop the condition; however, the chance of developing head and neck cancer increases with the more risk factors you have. You should tell your doctor about your risk factors and discuss your concerns.
Risk factors for head and neck cancer:
_____ Using tobacco products is the greatest risk factor for developing head and neck cancer. This includes cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, such as chew or dip.
_____ Drinking alcohol is associated with head and neck cancer.
_____ People that use tobacco and drink alcohol together have the highest risk of all.
_____ Exposure to wood dust, nickel dust, or asbestos increases the risk for head and neck cancer.
_____ Plummer-Vision syndrome, a disorder caused by nutritional deficiencies, is associated with an increased risk for head and neck cancer.
_____ Certain viruses, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) and the Epstein-Barr virus can contribute to the development of head and neck cancer.
_____ Leukoplakia, white patches or spots in the mouth, can become cancerous.
_____ Paan (betel quid), a substance originally used in China and Southeast Asia, can contribute to head and neck cancer.
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This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.
The iHealthSpot patient education library was written collaboratively by the iHealthSpot editorial team which includes Senior Medical Authors Dr. Mary Car-Blanchard, OTD/OTR/L and Valerie K. Clark, and the following editorial advisors: Steve Meadows, MD, Ernie F. Soto, DDS, Ronald J. Glatzer, MD, Jonathan Rosenberg, MD, Christopher M. Nolte, MD, David Applebaum, MD, Jonathan M. Tarrash, MD, and Paula Soto, RN/BSN. This content complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information. The library commenced development on September 1, 2005 with the latest update/addition on February 16, 2022. For information on iHealthSpot’s other services including medical website design, visit www.iHealthSpot.com.