What is head and neck cancer?
Cancer can start any place in the body. Cancer that starts in the head and neck can have many names. It depends on where the cancer starts. All of these cancers start when cells in part of the head or neck grow out of control and crowd out normal cells. This makes it hard for the body to work the way it should.
Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body. Cancer cells in the head or neck can sometimes travel to the lungs and grow there. When cancer cells do this, it’s called metastasis. To doctors, the cancer cells in the new place look just like the ones from the head or neck where it started.
Cancer is always named for the place where it starts. So when head or neck cancer spreads to the lung (or any other place), it’s still called head or neck cancer. It’s not called lung cancer unless it starts from cells in the lung.
There are many types of head and neck cancers. Your doctor can tell you more about the type you have. Here are some of the most common types and how to say them:
- Oral cavity cancer – starts in the mouth
- Oropharyngeal cancer – starts in back of the mouth or the throat
- Nasal cavity cancer – starts in the opening behind the nose, a space that runs along the top of the roof of the mouth and then turns downward to join the back of the mouth and the throat
- Paranasal sinus cancer – starts in the openings around or near the nose called sinuses
- Nasopharyngeal cancer – starts in the upper part of the throat behind the nose
- Laryngeal cancer – starts in the voice box
- Hypopharyngeal cancer – starts in the lower part of the throat beside and behind the voice box
The most common type of cancer in the head and neck area is called carcinoma. These cancers start in the cells that line all parts of the nose, mouth, and throat.
There are many ways to treat head or neck cancer, but the main types of treatment are local or systemic. Surgery and radiation are used to treat only the cancer. They do not affect the rest of the body. This is called local treatment. Chemo and targeted treatment drugs go through the whole body. They can reach cancer cells anywhere in the body. They are called systemic treatment.
Doctors often use both local and systemic treatments for head and neck cancers. The treatment plan that’s best for you will depend on:
- Where the cancer is
- The stage of the cancer
- The chance that a type of treatment will cure the cancer or help in some way
- How treatment will affect the way you talk, breathe, and eat
- Your age
- Other health problems you have
- Your feelings about the treatment and the side effects that come with it
Surgery for head or neck cancer
Some of these cancers are in places that are hard to operate on. Still, surgery may be used to take out the cancer and an edge of healthy tissue around it. In some cases, all or part of the tongue, throat, vocal box, wind pipe, or jaw bone may need to be removed. Surgery may also be used to take out lymph nodes in the neck that haven’t gotten better with other treatments. Surgery can also be used to help you do things that the cancer may have changed. For instance, if you can’t swallow because of the tumor, surgery may be done to put in a feeding tube.
Radiation uses high-energy rays (like x-rays) to kill cancer cells. Here are some ways this treatment may be used to treat head and neck cancers:
- As the main treatment
- To shrink the tumor so it’s easier to take out with surgery
- To kill any cancer cells that may be left after surgery
- To ease problems caused by the cancer
There are 2 main ways radiation can be given. It can be aimed at the cancer from a machine outside the body. This is called external beam radiation. Or, radioactive seeds can be put right into the body near the cancer. This is called brachytherapy.
Chemo is the short word for chemotherapy– the use of drugs to fight cancer. The drugs may be given into a vein or taken as pills. These drugs go into the blood and spread through the body. Chemo is given in cycles or rounds. Each round of treatment is followed by a break. Most of the time, 2 or more chemo drugs are given. Treatment often lasts for many months. Chemo is often given along with radiation.
There are some newer drug treatments for head and neck cancers. One example is called targeted therapy. This is not the same as chemo because these drugs affect mainly cancer cells and not normal cells in the body. They may work even if chemo doesn’t, or they may help chemo work better. They may cause fewer side effects. Another newer type of drug treatment is called immunotherapy. These drugs help your own immune system attack the cancer. These drugs tend to have fewer side effects, but when they do happen they can sometimes be serious.