Head and Neck Cancer & How to Get a Second Opinion
Head and neck cancer is a term used to define cancer that develops in the mouth, throat, nose, salivary glands, or other areas around the head and neck such as oral cancers. About five percent of all new malignant diseases affect the head and neck area.
Most of these cancers are squamous cell carcinomas (approximately 90%), or cancers that begin in the lining of the mouth, nose and throat. It’s been found that 85% of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use, and 75% are associated with a combination of tobacco and alcohol use.
Because of their location, head and neck tumours and treatment-related side effects may impair patients’ ability to eat, swallow and breathe. Globally, more than 550,000 cases of Head and Neck cancer are registered with around 300,000 deaths each year. In the last ten years, this number has increased by around 25 percent, making head and neck tumours the sixth most common tumor types diagnosed worldwide. Often these tumours are only diagnosed in later stages and are then associated with only a low five-year survival probability. Ensuring you receive the most suitable treatment for head and neck cancer can enhance quality of life significantly though. If you have a type of head and neck cancer, you may want to consider exploring your options by seeking a second opinion that can also provide invaluable information to help you make an informed decision.
Types of Head & Neck Cancer
There are 5 main types of head and neck cancer, each named according to the part of the body where they develop.
Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer
The larynx is commonly called the voice box. This tube-shaped organ in the neck 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.
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 produces saliva. Saliva is the fluid that is released into the mouth to keep it moist and that contains enzymes that begin breaking down food.
There are also various other types of cancer can be located in the head and neck region, but the diagnosis and treatment are different. These can include brain tumours, esophageal cancer, eye cancer, parathyroid cancer, sarcoma, and thyroid cancer.
Causes of Head and Neck Cancer
There are a number of risk factors associated with head and neck cancers. The main risk factors are alcohol consumption and tobacco. Other risk factors include:
- Viruses – both the human papillomavirus (HPV) and the Epstein-Barr virus have been linked to head and neck cancers
- Age - head and neck cancer is more common in people over 40 years old
- Gender - men are three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer
- Oral hygiene - poor oral health including gum disease have been linked to cancers of the oral cavity
- Exposure to work-related chemicals such as asbestos, dry-cleaning solvents or certain types of paint
- Smoking tobacco
- A weakened immune system
- Smoking or chewing betel nut, areca nut, gutka or pan
- Drinking alcohol
- Being from southern China or South-East Asia due to cultural practices such as chewing tobacco or eating salty foods
- Sun exposure (skin cancer of the lip).
Treatment of Head and Neck Cancers
If found early, many cancers of the head and neck can be cured and patients can go on to live with a good quality of life. This is why it is so important to be checked by your doctor if you suspect you may have head and neck cancer. As there are a number of different types of head and neck cancers, the most suitable treatment will vary between cases. When planning treatment, your doctor should discuss with you the various options and how it they may impact on quality life such as how you feel, look, talk, eat, and breathe.
Standard Treatment Options for Head and Neck Cancer
Standard treatment for head and neck cancer can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of these treatments. The main focus of treatment will normally be to eliminate the cancer and to preserve the function of the nearby nerves and organs as much as possible.
Standard treatment options can come with severe side effects though and therefore you should consider all the side effects with your oncologist before making an informed decision on your treatment plan. Major side effects of radiotherapy for example in the head and neck area include speech and hearing loss, impaired swallowing with aspiration due to nerve damage, painful inflammation and dry mouth, with considerable restriction of the quality of life.
People who are diagnosed with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer may be treated differently than people with oropharyngeal cancers that are HPV-negative.
Other common types of treatments used for head and neck cancer include:
- Laser technology
- Lymph node dissection or neck dissection
- Reconstruction (plastic surgery)
Modern Treatment Options for Head and Neck Cancer
In order to give patients the best quality of life; combined with higher survival rates, there are a number of innovative treatment approaches to Head and Neck Cancer you may want to consider – some of which may be available outside of your home country. New treatment options for head and neck cancer may include:
- Radiation therapy
- Therapies using medication also known as systemic therapy. Types of systemic therapies for head and neck cancer include: regional chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, tomotherapy and NanoKnife.
- Palliative care to improve your quality of life by alleviating the symptoms of cancer.
Oncolomed have put together further information on treatment options available for head and neck cancer including standard treatment and modern treatment modalities so you understand what options could be available to you.
Metastatic Head and Neck Cancer
If cancer spreads to another part in the body from where it started, it is called metastatic cancer. If this happens, the best treatment plan may involve different options or a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy. Clinical trials might also be an option. Palliative care will also be important to help relieve symptoms and side effects.
Second Opinions for Head and Neck Cancer
As types of head and neck cancer such as oral cancer and laryngeal cancer can sometimes be rare, your oncologist may not be as familiar with diagnosing or treating this type of cancer. For this reason, it is widely recommended to seek a second opinion. A second opinion can provide an additional assessment of your case in order so that you can understand your diagnosis and the treatment options available fully – allowing you to make an informed decision about your treatment plan. Some specialist oncologists may be more up to date on the latest treatment methods and what treatment would be most suitable for your specific case.
Through our network of specialist clinics and oncologists, Oncolomed can facilitate a second opinion with one of our head and neck cancer specialists which can be conducted online. Learn more about our second opinion services and how they can help.
Living with Head and Neck Cancer
Due to the potential side effects from having head and neck cancer and the treatments involved; many patients and their families require supportive care in order to help them manage their pain while therapies may be needed to help with breathing and exercising. Head and neck cancer can have a significant impact on diet too so it’s important to seek out advice for managing and living with head and neck cancer.
Many charities and organisations provide support and advice for patients including THANC Guide and the THANC Foundation. Your team of doctors should be able to provide advice at all stages too so make sure to discuss any concerns you may have openly with them.
How OncoloMed Can Help
Oncolomed can guide and support you through every step of your cancer treatment journey. Take a look at our cancer patient stories to find out how we can help or explore our services that can guide you in every step of your journey.