Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

Head and neck cancers are common, with approximately 65,000 patients diagnosed every year in the United States. These cancers affect any area of the head and neck apart from the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), and can cause significant impairment in a person’s ability to eat, swallow, and/or breathe. This broad range of cancers occurs in the region of the head and neck and may affect the larynx (voice box), throat, lips, mouth, nose, and salivary glands, separately. These cancers have the potential to metastasize, or spread, to other areas of the body. Many head and neck cancers are responsive to treatment.

The Department of Neurosurgery at Rutgers Health and RWJBarnabas Health treats a wide range of cancers, including head and neck cancers, through a multidisciplinary team made up of board-certified specialist in surgical oncology, radiation oncology, and speech pathology professionals. By using state-of-the-art treatment, we are able to provide the very best technology to treat our patients for optimal outcomes.

What Are Head and Neck Cancers?

Cancers starting in the head or neck, but not in the brain or spine, take many forms, depending on where the cancer originates. The malignant cells can spread throughout the body, which is called metastasis. This is when cancer from one part of the body travels to another, often the lungs, and continues to grow there. They are still a head or neck cancer, however, because the cells look the same as the cells at the origin of the tumor, and cancers are always named after their place of origin. For instance, breast cancer that spreads to the lungs is still called breast cancer.

Types of Head and Neck Cancers

Depending on the type of head or neck cancer, symptoms vary widely.

The most common type of head and neck cancer is called carcinoma, which starts in the cells lining all parts of the nose, mouth, and throat. Different kinds of head and neck cancers include:

  • Esthesioneuroblastoma: This rare cancer begins in the upper portion of the nasal cavity, separated from the brain by a bone containing tiny holes allowing the olfactory nerves to sense smell. It can occur at any age in adults, and it may extend into the sinuses, eyes, and brain.

  • Floor of the mouth cancer: This, as the name suggests, begins on the tissue underneath the tongue. It usually begins as squamous cells (thin, flat cells) and changes the look and feel of the floor of the mouth. Early signs/symptoms are lumps or sores that don’t heal.

  • Lip cancer: This cancer is most common on the lower lip and is classified as a type of oral (mouth) cancer. Risk factors include excessive sun exposure and/or pipe smoking.

  • Nasal and paranasal tumors: These abnormal growths begin in and around the nasal cavity. They can be noncancerous or malignant, and treatment will be based on the specific type of tumor you’re suffering from.

  • Nasopharyngeal carcinoma: These rare cancers occur in the nasopharynx behind the nose, above the back of the throat. Usually, they cannot be detected early, because the area isn’t easy to examine and the symptoms are similar to other, more common conditions.

  • Pituitary tumors: Abnormal masses in the pituitary gland can create a surplus of hormones that regulate important bodily functions. The tumor can be removed, but the patient will likely need hormone replacement medication as a result.

  • Salivary gland tumors: These rare tumors can be malignant or benign, and can be found in any, or all, of the salivary glands found in the mouth, neck, or throat. The purpose of these glands is to produce saliva, which has multiple functions: aiding digestion, keeping the mouth moist, and supporting healthy teeth.

  • Skin cancer: Although it can develop in multiple areas of the body, skin cancer is also found on the scalp, face, lips, ears, and neck. The 3 major types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

  • Soft palate cancer: This begins in the cells of the soft palate, which is located in the back of the roof of the mouth, behind the teeth. This is considered a type of throat cancer.

  • Throat cancer: These cancers develop in the throat, voice box, or tonsils. Subtypes include nasopharyngeal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer, hypopharyngeal cancer, glottic cancer, supraglottic cancer, and subglottic cancer.

  • Thyroid cancer: The thyroid is a gland located in the base of the neck just below the Adam’s apple, and it produces hormones regulating heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and weight.

  • Tongue cancer: Tumors may appear in the tongue or throat. Treatment for more aggressive tumors may impact the patient’s ability to speak or eat, especially for cancers found in the throat.

  • Tonsil cancer: The tonsils are two oval-shaped structures in the back of the mouth that help fight germs along with the body’s immune system. Symptoms can include difficulty swallowing and a sensation that something is caught in the throat.

Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosis

Diagnosis varies depending on the size, location, and type of head or neck cancer. The doctor may suspect a tumor in the affected area of the head or neck, and determine the best treatment plan from there.

Cancers are often not found until they cause problems prompting a person to go to the doctor. Sometimes changes are found during a routine physical or dental exam, but it is helpful to see a otolaryngologist doctor to confirm diagnosis.

Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

Treatment depends on the type of cancer, as well as its location and size. Treatment may involve surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these. Recovery from surgery or other treatments involves the expert assistance of rehabilitation specialists to cope with side effects. Some of the side effects may include sensory loss, particularly of taste and smell.

Request an appointment online now or call 833-656-3876.