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April is Oral, Head & Neck Cancer Awareness Month, an observance dedicated to educating people about the group of cancers that affect the head and neck.
Head and neck cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the world and accounts for about 4% of all cancers in the United States.
Through research, treatments for head and neck cancer continue to evolve.
Early awareness key to combating head and neck cancer
Each year, 550,000 new cases of head and neck cancer are diagnosed across the globe — 55,000 of those in the United States. Yet 80% of people whose cancers are caught early survive the disease.
That’s why early detection is so important — and why education is the goal of Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month.
Head and neck cancer
Head and neck cancer refers to the group of cancers that begin in the head and neck, typically in the squamous cells that line the surfaces of the mouth, nose, throat and salivary glands.
These types of cancer include:
- Oral cavity cancer
Oral cavity cancer, or oral or mouth cancer, develops in the mouth. It can start on the lips, the cheeks or the front of the tongue.
- Oropharyngeal cancer
Oropharyngeal cancer starts in the middle part of the throat, called the oropharynx. It can begin on the base of the tongue, the soft palate or the tonsils.
- Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer
Nasal cavity cancers develop inside the nose, while paranasal sinus cancers start in the sinuses — either in the cheeks, below the eyes or on either side of the nose.
- Laryngeal cancer
Laryngeal cancer begins in the larynx, or voice box. For this reason, laryngeal cancers can affect the voice, causing hoarseness. It can also cause problems with the airway or swallowing.
- Hypopharyngeal cancer
Hypopharyngeal cancer develops in the lower part of the throat, called the hypopharynx.
- Nasopharyngeal cancer
Nasopharyngeal cancer starts in the nasopharynx, a chamber in the upper part of the throat behind the nose and near the base of the skull. A persistent sore throat is a common symptom of all pharynx cancers.
- Salivary gland cancer
Cancers that affect the glands on the sides of the face (parotid), below the jaw (submandibular) and inside the mouth and nose (minor salivary) are called salivary gland cancers.
Risk factors for head and neck cancer
The most common risk factor for head and neck cancer is heavy tobacco use. In fact, researchers estimate that 70% to 80% of head and neck cancer cases are linked to tobacco.
Shortly behind tobacco, the second biggest risk factor for head and neck cancer is frequent and heavy alcohol use. Using tobacco products and alcohol together raises the risk even more.
In addition to tobacco use and alcohol consumption, other risk factors for the disease include:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection
- Sun exposure
- Poor nutrition
- Certain genetic syndromes
Preventing head and neck cancer
Currently, there aren’t any routine screening tests available for head and neck cancer, aside from regular physical examinations of the head, neck and throat by a doctor or dentist.
You can avoid tobacco and alcohol, though, and, if you’re under age 46, you can talk to your doctor about the HPV vaccine. Gardasil is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to help prevent certain kinds of cancers related to HPV, or HPV-related cancers. That includes oropharyngeal cancer, which has been on the rise over the past two decades even as oral cancers linked to tobacco and alcohol use have declined.
Treatment advances at Providence
At Providence, our oncologists take a pioneering approach to treating head and neck cancer and use minimally invasive procedures whenever possible. We also focus treatment options on reducing side effects and helping patients regain their quality of life.
Transoral robotic surgery (TORS)
The Providence Head and Neck Cancer Program was one of the first programs in the world to begin using TORS to remove cancer from the back of the throat, the base of the tongue and the larynx. TORS uses the DaVinci SP robot to perform surgery through the mouth without having to make an incision in the patient’s throat or lip or split the jawbone. This approach helps patients recover more quickly, and it reduces the risk of damaging tissues that affect speech and swallowing.
TORS also produces better outcomes. The Providence Head and Neck Cancer Program team conducted a study between 2011 and 2018 looking at patients who had HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer and were treated with TORS. The five-year overall survival rate was 91%, and the five-year probability of recurrence or cancer-associated death was less than 1%. The results were published in the Oral Oncology Journal in 2020.
Clinical trials give patients who qualify access to the newest advancements and investigational therapies. We currently have 13 active clinical trials open to patients with head and neck cancer, including an investigator-initiated trial to test the effectiveness of an immunotherapy drug used before surgery. Providence is the only site in the world accepting patients for this trial.
Gene therapy is a targeted treatment that uses biologic gene manipulation to change parts of a cell’s genetic code. Although it’s relatively new, gene therapy shows promise in treating head and neck cancer.
In our Molecular Genomics Laboratory and the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute — a division of Providence Cancer Institute — we can create genomic profiles of tumors to tailor precise cancer treatments for patients.
New treatments in the pipeline
Treatment continues to evolve for head and neck cancer. This July, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and the American Head and Neck Society (AHNS) are meeting to discuss the latest research and award grants to investigators pursuing promising studies related to head and neck cancer.
Researchers are currently investigating whether photodynamic therapy, which uses a laser to destroy cancer cells, would be effective for treating head and neck cancer, for example. They’re also studying whether proton therapy — a radiation therapy technique that can help protect important structures like the brain stem — should be added to treatment plans for nasopharyngeal cancers to reduce damage to healthy tissue.
Still, the most important component is awareness. The more people know about head and neck cancer and its risk factors, the more steps they can take to protect themselves.
Find a doctor
If you are looking for a provider specializing in head and neck cancer, you can search for one who’s right for you in our provider directory .
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.
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