What is head and neck cancer?
The term “head and neck cancer” describes a number of different cancers that develop in or around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, and mouth. These cancers begin when healthy cells in these areas change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumour. Many of these tumours start in flat squamous cells that form the surface layer of tissue inside the head and neck. There are human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines that can help protect against certain head and neck cancers.
What are the types of head and neck cancer?
There are 5 main types of head and neck cancer. Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer starts in the larynx or the part of the throat surrounding the larynx. Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer develops behind the nose where air passes on its way to the throat or in the air-filled areas surrounding the nasal cavity. Nasopharyngeal cancer affects the nasopharynx, the air passageway at the upper throat behind the nose. Oral and oropharyngeal cancer begins in the mouth, tongue, or middle of the throat. Salivary gland cancer begins in a salivary gland.
What does stage mean?
Staging is a way of describing a cancer’s location, if or where it has spread, and whether it is affecting other parts of the body. There is a different staging system for each type of head and neck cancer.
How are cancers of the head and neck treated?
Treatment depends on the type and stage of cancer, possible side effects, and the patient’s preferences and overall health. Doctors also consider how treatment might affect how a patient feels, looks, talks, eats, and breathes. The main treatment options are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. One or a combination of these treatments may be used. The goal of surgery is to remove the tumour and some surrounding healthy tissue. Some people need more than 1 operation. Radiation therapy may be recommended instead of surgery, or it may be used after surgery to destroy remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used before or after surgery or combined with radiation therapy. Targeted therapy that targets a tumour protein called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) may be recommended. Immunotherapy may be an option for some people with advanced head and neck cancer. Rehabilitation will be an important part of the cancer care plan. It can help patients regain and improve abilities that changed after treatment. Before treatment begins, patients should ask their health care team about preventing or managing side effects of cancer treatment. This is called palliative care or supportive care and is an important part of the overall treatment plan.
Regular communication is important in making informed decisions about your health care. It can be helpful to bring someone along to your appointments to take notes and understand.
Consider asking your health care team the following questions:
1. What type of head & neck cancer do I have?
2. Can you explain my pathology report (laboratory test results) to me?
3. What stage is the cancer? What does this mean?
4. Would you explain my treatment options?
5. Will I need speech therapy or other rehabilitation?
6. What is the goal of each treatment? Is it to eliminate the cancer, help me feel better, or both?
7. Who will be part of my treatment team, and what does each member do?
8. How will this treatment affect my daily life?
9. Will this treatment affect my ability to become pregnant or have children?
10. What long-term side effects may be associated with my cancer treatment?
11. If I’m worried about managing the costs of cancer care, who can help me?