Beyond the Surface: Illuminating Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancers are a group of cancers that affect different tissues of the head and neck area. While they often start in the throat, mouth, larynx, salivary glands, and sinuses, they can also develop in other parts of the head and neck, including the nasal cavity and pharynx.This blog will explore the complexities […]
April 8, 2024
Dr. Ves Gitchev
Dr. Ves Gitchev MD is the Director of Global Healthcare Partnerships at Science 37. A pioneer and innovator with nearly 2 decades of experience in the research industry, Dr. Gitchev's focus is on delivering the highest quality results to drive scientific advancement.

Head and neck cancers are a group of cancers that affect different tissues of the head and neck area. While they often start in the throat, mouth, larynx, salivary glands, and sinuses, they can also develop in other parts of the head and neck, including the nasal cavity and pharynx.This blog will explore the complexities of head and neck cancer, including the risk factors and treatment. We'll also discuss the challenges patients and caregivers face and the latest advancements in diagnosis and care, thanks to clinical trials and research initiatives.

Understanding Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer refers to several types of cancers that start in the cells lining your throat, mouth or voice box. In some cases, head and neck cancers form in the salivary glands or sinuses.

Squamous cell carcinoma accounts for 90% of all head and neck cancers. It arises from the squamous cells, which are flat, thin cells that line the surfaces of the mucous membranes in the head and neck region.

Other less common types include mucoepidermoid carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, and lymphomas, among others. Each type of cancer may have different risk factors, presentations, and treatment approaches.

Types of Head and Neck Cancers

Some common types of head and neck cancer include:

  • Throat cancer: Also known as pharyngeal cancer, throat cancer includes cancers that develop in the nasopharynx (upper part), oropharynx (middle part), and hypopharynx (lower part). 
  • Nasal and sinus cancer: Nasal and sinus cancer develops in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses. These cancers may cause symptoms like nasal congestion, sinus pressure, or nosebleeds.
  • Oral cancer: Oral cancers develop in the oral cavity - so the mouth, lips, gums, inner lining of the cheeks, hard or soft palate, etc. They may present as ulcers, lumps, or white or red patches in the mouth that do not heal.
  • Salivary gland cancer: Cancer that originates in the salivary glands.

Despite their anatomical proximity to the head and neck region, thyroid, esophageal, eye, and brain cancers are not typically classified as head and neck cancers. Each of these cancers arises from distinct tissues and structures with different embryological origins and functions, leading to differences in their classification, diagnosis, and management.

Who is at Risk for Head and Neck Cancers?

Anyone can develop head and neck cancer. However, some people may have a higher predisposition due to various risk factors. Here are some high risk groups:

People Who Smoke or Chew Tobacco

Cigarettes, cigars, pipes, etc., use is a significant risk factor for head and neck cancers. Tobacco smoke contains numerous carcinogens that can damage the cells lining the upper respiratory and digestive tracts, leading to the development of cancer. Chewing tobacco is also linked to an increased risk of cheek, gum and mouth cancer.

People who Drink Alcohol

Chronic and heavy alcohol consumption, especially when combined with tobacco use, further elevates the risk of developing head and neck cancer. Alcohol can act as a solvent, allowing carcinogens from tobacco smoke to penetrate the lining of the mouth, throat, and esophagus more easily.

People With Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection

Infection with certain high-risk strains of HPV have been associated with an increased risk of oropharyngeal cancers. HPV-related head and neck cancers are more common in younger people. This underscores the importance of HPV vaccine as a preventive measure.

People Who Work in Certain Environments

Exposure to certain substances like asbestos, wood dust, formaldehyde, and certain chemicals used in the manufacturing or construction industries can increase the risk of developing head and neck cancer. People working in environments with high levels of these carcinogens may have an elevated risk.

Other Risk Factors

Other risk factors include genetic predisposition, age and gender as well as poor oral hygiene and nutrition.

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancers can manifest with different symptoms based on stage, and location. They include:

  • A sore throat that does not go away or worsens over time
  • Difficulty swallowing, also known as dysphagia, can occur when a tumor obstructs the throat or esophagus
  • Hoarseness or changes in voice quality that persist for more than a few weeks may indicate laryngeal or voice box cancer
  • A painless swelling or lump in the neck may be a sign of enlarged lymph nodes, which can occur as a result of cancer spreading from the primary tumor site
  • Ear pain that does not resolve with treatment may be a symptom of cancers that affect the throat or nearby structures
  • Unexplained weight loss 
  • Chronic sinus infections or nasal congestion that does not respond to treatment (may be accompanied by nasal discharge, nosebleeds, or facial pain)
  • A chronic cough or persistent sputum production
  • Changes in the appearance of the mouth or oral cavity, like white or red patches, ulcers that do not heal, or persistent pain
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath

These symptoms can happen due to other conditions other than cancer. But if they persist for more than a few weeks or are accompanied by other concerning symptoms, you should seek medical help for further assessment and diagnosis. Early detection and prompt treatment can improve prognosis and treatment outcomes for people with head and neck cancer.

Treatment Options

Head and neck cancer treatment varies based on the stage, location and types of the cancer. But factors like the patient's overall health and preferences also come to play. Treatment modalities may include:

Surgery

This is the removal of the tumor and affected lymph nodes. It can be done alone or in combination with other treatments. Surgery aims to get rid of the cancerous tissue while preserving essential functions and structures. It is usually done for cancers that have not spread to other parts of the body.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy targets and destroys cancer cells with high-energy radiation beams. It is used as the primary treatment or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy. Radiation therapy may be delivered externally (external beam radiation) or internally (brachytherapy).

Chemotherapy

Powerful drugs are administered either orally or intravenously to kill cancer cells or slow their growth. Chemotherapy may be used alone or in combination with other treatments, like surgery or radiation therapy.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy drugs specifically target certain molecules involved in cancer growth and progression, offering a more precise treatment approach. These drugs may be used for cancers that express specific molecular markers.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy drugs work by harnessing the body's immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells. Immunotherapy may be used as a standalone treatment or in combination with other therapies for certain types of head and neck cancer.

Challenges of Navigating Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancer patients and caregivers face a myriad of challenges, ranging from physical discomfort and difficulty eating and speaking to emotional distress and financial strain. The complex nature of treatment, potential long-term side effects, and impact on quality of life further compound these challenges.

Patients often grapple with changes in appearance, loss of function, and uncertainties about the future, while caregivers navigate the demands of providing support and managing practical aspects of care. Additionally, accessing comprehensive care and navigating the healthcare system can be daunting.

Advancements in Diagnosis and Care

However, advancements in diagnosis and care offer hope in navigating these challenges. These initiatives, driven by research from clinical trials are exploring innovative diagnostic techniques, targeted therapies, immunotherapies, and supportive care interventions that aim to improve outcomes and enhance the quality of life for head and neck cancer patients.

Clinical trials like those offered by Science 37 test new therapies and technologies and provide valuable insights into effective approaches for managing the disease. They also pave the way for personalized treatment strategies customized to the unique needs of each individual.If you or someone you know is facing a diagnosis of head, neck, or throat cancer, you could benefit from a clinical trial. Science 37 is actively seeking individuals diagnosed with cancers of the oropharynx, hypopharynx, or larynx. Click here to see if you qualify. Your participation could be a vital contribution to the ongoing fight against head and neck cancer.

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