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Most head and neck cancers begin in the mucosal membranes of the oral cavity, throat, sinus cavity, salivary glands, soft palate, tonsils and nearby lymph nodes. These surfaces are moist tissues that line cavities—such as the mouth, nose and ear—that are open to the environment. Normal mucosal cells look like fish scales under a microscope, so they are called squamous cells, and head and neck cancers are often called squamous cell carcinomas.
Cancers of this type have a high survival rate if the tumor is found when it is still very small—less than two millimeters in diameter. Most head and neck cancers are not discovered quite so early. The prognosis is less promising when the tumor is larger, and when it has spread to nearby lymph nodes. As with many cancers, early detection is important, and thus it is important to pay attention to sores in the mouth and such things as a persistent sore throat or pain in the sinus area around the nose and under the eye.
Wellstar Health System provides superior care for head and neck cancers, offering a comprehensive spectrum of top-notch physicians, treatment options and diagnostic tools. In addition Wellstar offers innovative advances in the fight against head and neck cancer, including:
Tobacco use, including smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco such as chewing tobacco and snuff, is implicated in about 85% of head and neck cancers. Heavy alcohol use also increases a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer. Tobacco use and alcohol use together increase a person’s risk even more, as the use of both over a long period are believed to cause changes in the cells of tissue in the head and neck.
Head and neck cancers can originate in many of the areas of the head and neck, and a person’s cancer will be identified and treated based on the specific location. Some examples are cancers of the throat, tongue, larynx, and oral cancer. They can spread to the lymph nodes of the upper neck, where squamous cancer cells may be found even when there is no evidence of cancer elsewhere in the head or neck.
Symptoms of head and neck cancers will vary based upon what part of the head and neck they appear in. They include:
Wellstar supports scientific research that shows certain lifestyle choices can lower a person’s risk of some cancers, including head and neck cancer. The single most important behavior to avoid is smoking, which is implicated in up to 30 different kinds of cancer. Some studies indicate that as many as 85% of head and neck cancers are caused by smoking and smokeless tobacco. Wellstar supports smoking cessation programs and will endeavor to help patients who want to stop smoking—or stop using smokeless tobacco, through a variety of cessation efforts. Different approaches work for different people, and Wellstar experts can help tailor a cessation program that will enhance your likelihood successfully quitting.
There are no screening tests, like mammography for breast cancer, to detect head and neck cancer. There are, however, many symptoms that may lead your Wellstar physician to order certain diagnostic tests to determine if you have head and neck cancer. The type of tests will depend on the symptom or symptoms you present. If, for example, you have a sore in your mouth that will not go away, your Wellstar physician may perform a biopsy of that lesion. If you have had difficulty swallowing for several weeks or have a persistent sore throat, your Wellstar physician will perform a physical examination to look for enlarged lymph nodes. He/she may also use a small mirror or light to examine your throat and nasal cavities. Also, your Wellstar physician may recommend a procedure called an endoscopy, in which a lighted tube is inserted into your mouth to view your larynx, esophagus or nose to determine if any suspicious lumps exist. During the endoscopy, tissue from any suspicious lump or mass is extracted and examined to see if cancer is present. You will be mildly sedated during an endoscopy to minimize pain and discomfort. You may also have x-rays and other imaging tests, such as an MRI or a CT or PET scan, to look for masses inside your body.
When a cancer of the head or neck is diagnosed, your Wellstar physician will categorize it by its current stage. Stage describes how large the tumor is and whether the cancer has spread to other groups of lymph nodes and to distant sites within the body.
Once cancer has been detected, biopsied, and categorized by stage, your team of specialists in oncology, radiation oncology, surgery and pathology will work together to assess your best course of treatment for your specific type of head and neck cancer. This will include formulating a coordinated plan of personalized treatment consistent with the highest standards of care. Your treatment will be tailored to the type and stage of head and neck cancer you have, and may include a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
Surgery is a treatment for many types of cancers of the head and neck. Some surgeries may change the appearance of the face, as tissue from the face may need to be removed, or may change the patient's ability to chew, swallow, or talk. When lymph nodes are cancerous, a procedure known as a lymph node dissection may need to be performed. Other types of surgery will vary depending on the location of your cancer.
In some cases, rehabilitation from head and neck surgery involves learning how to chew, swallow or speak as before the surgery. Wellstar occupational therapists and speech therapists are highly trained to rehabilitate head and neck surgery patients, and Wellstar surgeons are highly expert in limiting their procedures to the exact area where a tumor needs to be removed, thus minimizing the damage to nearby tissues.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs given by mouth or injection to destroy cancer cells. It can be used to assist in the cure of cancer patients or to prolong life or the quality of life. Chemotherapy is typically used for head and neck cancer patients to control its spread to lymph nodes, many of which are close to the sites of head and neck cancer.
Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams of energy to kill cancer cells. This kind of therapy is often used after surgery. The use of Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy, of which Wellstar radiologists are expert, is extremely important in treating head and neck cancers. In IMRT, the radiation is focused only on the tumor, thus sparing nearby tissue. Because of the location of many head and neck tumors, sparing nearby tissue is critical so that patients can return to as normal a life as possible after surgery. Your Wellstar team is highly experienced and trained to manage your radiation treatment successfully so that your chances of resuming a normal life are enhanced.
You’ll be referred after your recovery from head and neck cancer to Wellstar’s medical oncology team for treatment, surveillance and survivorship programs. These comprehensive programs focus on diet, exercise and nutrition to help you reduce the risk of recurrence. In addition, because of the location of head and neck cancers and potential damage to the neck, mouth, nose and other areas of the face, rehabilitation specialists at WellStar will help maximize your chances of returning to as normal a life as possible.
Wellstar’s Oncology Nurse Navigator Program is designed to team a “nurse navigator” with each patient and their family. Nurse navigators not only anticipate what patients and their families need, but help them work through the treatment system.
Cancer care at Wellstar is more than advanced technology, clinical research, and highly specialized physicians and nurses. It includes an array of supportive care services to improve the patient experience before, during and after treatment. All of these services are available within the Wellstar system, including:
Wellstar’s certified palliative care physicians and certified registered nurses are dedicated to providing compassionate, quality care in various settings, including home hospice, inpatient hospice nursing homes, assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Wellstar offers caring and compassionate hospice care for patients and their families in one of Georgia’s oldest hospice programs serving Bartow, Cherokee, Cobb, Douglas and Paulding counties.