There are a number of cancer types that arise in the head or neck region (in the nasal cavity, sinuses, lips, mouth, salivary glands, throat or larynx).
These cancer types account for approximately 3 to 5 percent of new cancer cases in the U.S and are most common in men over the age of 50.
Head and neck cancers are the only cancers that can usually be attributed to a specific cause. Tobacco use and excessive use of alcohol have been linked to these types of cancer. In fact, 85% percent of head and neck cancers can be linked to tobacco use.
Head and neck cancers are challenging to treat. Within a relatively small space lie several essential structures—the salivary glands, the parotid glands and the spinal cord. Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) has proven to be a particularly useful tool. It delivers radiation so precisely, that even with important normal structures adjacent to the tumor, radiation to those tissues can be minimized, therefore reducing toxicity.
Though the treatment for head and neck cancers is frequently curative, the long-term side effects can diminish quality of life. Dry mouth due to salivary gland damage is particularly distressing. To prevent long-term dry mouth, the radiation and medical oncologists work as a team to deliver Amifostine, a chemoprotective drug, within 30 minutes of treatment. It requires coordination of appointments and many phone calls between departments, but the team knows the results are worth it. Randomized trials have demonstrated that both acute toxicities (mucosistis) and late toxicities are greatly reduced.