Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

About Head & Neck Cancer in Anchorage, AK

Cancers of the head and neck are tumors that begin in the squamous cells that line the moist, membranes inside the head and neck and include cancers of the oral cavity, larynx, pharynx, salivary glands, and nose/nasal passages. This type of head and neck cancer is called squamous cell cancers. If cancer is limited to the squamous layer of cells, it is called carcinoma in situ. If cancer has grown beyond this cell layer and moved into the deeper tissue, then it is called invasive squamous cell carcinoma. Mat-Su Valley Cancer Center is available to provide cancer screening, treatment, and support.

More uncommon are cancers that begin in the salivary glands, of which there are many types, most commonly adenocarcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, or mucoepidermoid carcinoma. The board-certified radiology oncologists at Mat-Su Valley Cancer Center are experienced in treating cancers of the head and neck through the use of the most sophisticated and effective cancer treatments. Specifically, head and neck cancers are broken down into the areas in which they originate.

Other types of cancer, such as brain, esophageal, or thyroid cancers can occur in the head and neck areas, but are treated very differently. Head and neck cancer affects only about three percent of all cancers in the U.S. and 74 percent of those diagnosed are men. The five-year survival rate varies depending on many factors, but the average is 50 percent. Incidents of this type of cancer have been declining steadily.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a type head or neck cancer, your board-certified radiation oncologists will work with your medical team to discuss the array of advanced non-surgical radiation therapy treatment options available to you and the success rates with each type. It is common for head and neck cancer to travel, or metastasize, to other parts of the body. Treatments may consist of one or a combination of the following:

  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Hormonal therapy
  • Drug therapy

Treatment options for head and neck cancer are usually based on the tumor’s location and stage, and your age and overall health. Your cancer experts at Mat-Su Valley Cancer Center offer several head and neck cancer treatments based on your individual situation.

Head & Neck Cancer Risk Factors

There are two avoidable substances that can significantly increase the risk of developing a head and neck cancer:

  1. Tobacco. Tobacco use is the single largest risk factor for head and neck cancer. Eighty-five percent of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use, including smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes; chewing tobacco. The amount of tobacco use may affect your chance of recovery. Secondhand smoke may also increase a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer.
  1. Alcohol. If you drink heavily and frequently, your risk of developing cancer in the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus is increased. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases this risk even more.

Other factors that can raise a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer include:

  • Prolonged sun exposure. This is especially linked to cancer in the lip area, as well as skin cancer of the head and neck.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Research indicates that infection with this virus is becoming an increasingly common risk factor for some types of head and neck cancer. HPV is most often passed from person to person during sexual activity. There are different types, or strains, of HPV. Some strains are more strongly associated with certain types of cancer. HPV vaccines protect against certain strains of the virus. (See the Latest Research section for more information.)
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Exposure to EBV, which is more commonly known as the virus that causes mononucleosis or “mono,” plays a role in the development of nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Gender. Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer. However, the rate of head and neck cancer in women has been rising for several decades.
  • Age. People over the age of 40 are at higher risk for head and neck cancer.
  • Race. Black people are more likely than white people to develop certain types of head and neck cancer.
  • Poor oral and dental hygiene. Poor care of the mouth and teeth has been suggested as a factor that may increase the risk of head and neck cancer.
  • Environmental or occupational inhalants. Exposure to asbestos, wood dust, paint fumes, and certain chemicals may increase a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.
  • Marijuana use. Research suggests that people who have used marijuana may be at higher risk for head and neck cancer.
  • Poor nutrition. A diet low in vitamins A and B can raise a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and laryngopharyngeal reflux disease (LPRD). Reflux of stomach acid into the upper airway and throat has been suggested as a factor associated with the development of head and neck cancer.
  • Weakened immune system. A weakened immune system can raise a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.

Head & Neck Cancer: Types & Stages

There are five main types of head and neck cancer, each named according to the part of the body where they develop. For more information about a specific type, click on one of the names below.

  • Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer.The larynx is commonly called the voice box. It is a tube-shaped organ in the neck that is important for breathing, talking, and swallowing. It is located at the top of the windpipe, or trachea. The hypopharynx is also called the gullet. It 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 is tissue that produces saliva, which is the fluid that is released into the mouth to keep it moist and that contains enzymes that begin breaking down food.

Head & Neck Cancer Screening & Treatment Options

People with head and neck cancer often experience the following symptoms or signs. Sometimes, people with head and neck cancer do not show any of these symptoms. Or, these symptoms may be caused by a medical condition that is not cancer.

  • Swelling or sore that does not heal; this is the most common symptom
  • Red or white patch in the mouth
  • Lump, bump, or mass in the head or neck area, with or without pain
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Foul mouth odor not explained by hygiene
  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion
  • Frequent nose bleeds and/or unusual nasal discharge
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Double vision
  • Numbness or weakness of a body part in the head and neck region
  • Pain or difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaw or tongue
  • Ear and/or jaw pain
  • Blood in the saliva or phlegm, which is mucus discharged in mouth from respiratory passages
  • Loosening of teeth
  • Dentures that no longer fit
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue

head and neck cancer treatmentIf you are concerned about one or more of the symptoms or signs on this list, please talk with your radiation oncologist. Your radiation oncologist will ask how long and how often you’ve been experiencing the symptom(s), in addition to other questions. This is to help find out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

Many cancers of the head and neck can be cured, especially if they are found early. Although eliminating the cancer is the primary goal of treatment, preserving the function of the nearby nerves, organs, and tissues is also very important. When planning treatment, radiation oncologists consider how treatment might affect a person’s quality of life, such as how a person feels, looks, talks, eats, and breathes.

Overall, the main treatment options are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. Surgery or radiation therapy by themselves or a combination of these treatments may be part of a person’s treatment plan. More details can be found in each specific cancer type’s section.

Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, possible side effects, and the patient’s preferences and overall health. Your care plan may also include treatment for symptoms and side effects, an important part of cancer care. Take time to learn about all of your treatment options and be sure to ask questions about things that are unclear. Also, talk about the goals of each treatment with your radiation oncologist and what you can expect while receiving the treatment. Learn more about making treatment decisions. Our specialties also include:

Head & Neck Cancer: FAQs

Certain factors can make one person more likely to get head and neck cancer than another person. These are called risk factors. However, just because you have one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely get head and neck cancer. In fact, you can have many risk factors and still not develop the disease. On the other hand, you can have no risk factors and still get head and neck cancer.

  • Tobacco use. Smokers are more likely to get head and neck cancer than nonsmokers. Alcohol consumption. Some reports have found people who drink alcohol heavily (2 or more drinks a day) are at an increased risk. Those who smoke and drink heavily are at an even greater risk than people who do not.
  • Gender. Head and neck cancer is 2 to 3 times more common in men than in women. Race. Some types of head and neck cancer are more common among African Americans than among white Americans.
  • Sun exposure. Spending a lot of time in the sun without protecting your skin and lips is linked to cancer in the lip area as well as skin cancer on the face, head, and neck.
  • Certain infections. Some human papillomavirus (HPV) and Epstein Barr virus (EBV) infections are strongly linked to head and neck cancer.
  • Age. People older than age 40 are at increased risk for head and neck cancer.
  • Poor mouth care. Not taking care of the mouth and teeth may increase the risk of head and neck cancer
  • Poor diet. A diet that is low in some vitamins and minerals might increase the risk of head and neck cancer.
  • Workplace exposures. People exposed to wood dust, paint fumes, asbestos, and some other chemicals appear to be at increased risk for head and neck cancer.
  • Weakened immune system. People whose immune system is suppressed, such as people who have had organ transplants, are at higher risk for some kinds of head and neck cancer.

Many people with head and neck cancer experience symptoms such as:

  • A growth or sore in the mouth
  • A lump in the neck
  • A lump or sore inside the nose that will not heal
  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • Blocked sinuses that will not clear
  • Chronic sinus infections
  • Cough or hoarseness that does not go away
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty swallowing, speaking, or breathing
  • Frequent headache or pain around the nose, cheeks, jaws, or forehead
  • Frequent nosebleeds or ones that don’t stop
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness in the face
  • Pain in the ear
  • Swelling of the eyes or under the chin or around the jaw
  • Vomiting

These symptoms may be caused by cancer or by other problems. It is important to see a radiation oncologist about any symptoms like these so that the problem can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

Many people with cancer get a second opinion from another radiation oncologist. There are many reasons to get a second opinion. Here are some of those reasons:

  • Not feeling comfortable with the treatment decision
  • Being diagnosed with a rare type of cancer
  • Having different options for how to treat the cancer
  • Not being able to see a cancer expert

There are many ways to get a second opinion:

Ask a primary care radiation oncologist. Your radiation oncologist may be able to recommend a specialist. This may be a surgeon, medical oncologist, or radiation oncologist. Sometimes these radiation oncologists work together at cancer centers or programs.

Call the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service. The number is 800­4­CANCER (800­422­6237). They provide information about treatment facilities, including cancer centers and other programs supported by the National Cancer Institute.

Seek other options. Check with a local medical society, hospital, medical school, or cancer advocacy group to get names of radiation oncologists who can give you a second opinion. Or ask other people who have had your type of cancer to refer you to someone.

Treatment depends on the type of cancer you have, where it is, and its stage. Common treatments for head and neck cancer include radiation therapy, surgery, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy.

Call Mat-Su Valley Cancer Center For More Information

If all of these types and stages of head and neck cancer are confusing to you, give the experts at Mat-Su Valley Cancer Center a call at 907-707-1333. We are here to explain the variety of treatment options available to you and make sure all of your questions are answered. For your convenience, we also have an online contact form that you may use to ask your questions or make your first appointment. Your first phone consultation is free, so don’t hesitate to give us a call today. You owe it to yourself to explore all treatment options available to you.

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