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  • Sampath Chandra Prasad Rao

Head and neck cancer management

What are cancers of the head and neck?


Cancers that are known collectively as head and neck cancers usually begin in the squamous cells that line the mucosal surfaces of the head and neck (for example, those inside the mouth, throat, and voice box). These cancers are referred to as squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck. Head and neck cancers can also begin in the salivary glands, sinuses, or muscles or nerves in the head and neck, but these types of cancer are much less common than squamous cell carcinomas

Cancers of the head and neck can form in the:

Oral cavity: Includes the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, the floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue, the hard palate (bony top of the mouth), and the small area of the gum behind the wisdom teeth.

Throat (pharynx): The pharynx is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. It has three parts: the nasopharynx (the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose); the oropharynx (the middle part of the pharynx, including the soft palate [the back of the mouth], the base of the tongue, and the tonsils); the hypopharynx (The lower part of the pharynx).

Voice box (larynx): The voice box is a short passageway formed by cartilage just below the pharynx in the neck. The voice box contains the vocal cords. It also has a small piece of tissue, called the epiglottis, which moves to cover the voice box to prevent food from entering the air passages.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose. The nasal cavity is the hollow space inside the nose.

Salivary glands: The major salivary glands are in the floor of the mouth and near the jawbone. The salivary glands produce saliva. Minor salivary glands are located throughout the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat.


What causes cancers of the head and neck?



Alcohol and tobacco use (including secondhand smoke and smokeless tobacco, sometimes called “chewing tobacco” or “snuff”) are the two most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, especially cancers of the oral cavity, hypopharynx, and voice box . People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk of developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone . Most head and neck squamous cell carcinomas of the mouth and voice box are caused by tobacco and alcohol use .

Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV type 16, is a risk factor for oropharyngeal cancers that involve the tonsils or the base of the tongue . In the United States, the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV infection is increasing, while the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers related to other causes is falling . About three-quarters of all oropharyngeal cancers are caused by chronic HPV infection . Although HPV can be detected in other head and neck cancers, it appears to be the cause of cancer formation only in the oropharynx. The reasons for this are poorly understood.

Other known risk factors for specific cancers of the head and neck include the following:

Paan (betel quid). The use of paan (betel quid) in the mouth, a common custom in Southeast Asia, is strongly associated with an increased risk of mouth cancers.

Occupational exposure. Occupational exposure to wood dust is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer . Certain industrial exposures, including exposures to asbestos and synthetic fibers, have been associated with cancer of the voice box, but the increase in risk remains controversial . People working in certain jobs in the construction, metal, textile, ceramic, logging, and food industries may have an increased risk of cancer of the voice box . Industrial exposure to wood dust, nickel dust, or formaldehyde is a risk factor for cancers of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity.

Radiation exposure. Radiation to the head and neck, for noncancerous conditions or cancer, is a risk factor for cancer of the salivary glands.

Epstein-Barr virus infection. Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer and cancer of the salivary glands .

Ancestry. Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese ancestry, is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer .

Underlying genetic disorders. Some genetic disorders, such as Fanconi anemia, can increase the risk of developing precancerous lesions and cancers early in life.

What are head and neck cancer symptoms?

Head and neck cancer symptoms may include a lump in the neck or a sore in the mouth or the throat that does not heal and may be painful, a sore throat that does not go away, difficulty in swallowing, and a change or hoarseness in the voice. These symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious conditions. It is important to check with a doctor or dentist about any of these symptoms.

Symptoms of cancers in specific areas of the head and neck include:

Oral cavity. A white or red patch on the gums, the tongue, or the lining of the mouth; a growth or swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable; and unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.

Throat (pharynx). Pain when swallowing; pain in the neck or the throat that does not go away; pain or ringing in the ears; or trouble hearing.

Voice box (larynx). Trouble breathing or speaking, pain when swallowing or ear pain.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity. Sinuses that are blocked and do not clear; chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics; bleeding through the nose; frequent headaches, swelling or other trouble with the eyes; pain in the upper teeth; or problems with dentures.

Salivary glands. Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone, numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face, or pain in the face, the chin, or the neck that does not go away.

Head and neck cancer treatment can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of treatments. The treatment plan for an individual patient depends on a number of factors, including the location of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and the person’s age and general health.

Research has shown that patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal tumors have a much better prognosis and higher chance of complete cure than those with HPV-negative tumors following the same treatment

Treatment :

  • Hypopharyngeal cancers : Three types of standard treatment are used:

  • Surgery

  • Radiation therapy

  • Chemotherapy

Surgery


Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is a common treatment for all stages of hypopharyngeal cancer. The following surgical procedures may be used:

  • Laryngopharyngectomy: Surgery to remove the larynx (voice box) and part of the pharynx (throat).

  • Partial laryngopharyngectomy: Surgery to remove part of the larynx and part of the pharynx. A partial laryngopharyngectomy prevents loss of the voice.

  • Neck dissection: Surgery to remove lymph nodes and other tissues in the neck.

After the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.


Radiation therapy


Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer.

Radiation therapy may work better in patients who have stopped smoking before beginning treatment. External radiation therapy to the thyroid or the pituitary gland may change the way the thyroid gland works. A blood test to check the thyroid hormone level in the body may be done before and after therapy to make sure the thyroid gland is working properly.


Chemotherapy


Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy).

Chemotherapy may be used to shrink the tumor before surgery or radiation therapy. This is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy.


Laryngeal cancer


The larynx is a part of the throat, between the base of the tongue and the trachea. The larynx contains the vocal cords, which vibrate and make sound when air is directed against them. The sound echoes through the pharynx, mouth, and nose to make a person's voice.

There are three main parts of the larynx:

  • Supraglottis: The upper part of the larynx above the vocal cords, including the epiglottis.

  • Glottis: The middle part of the larynx where the vocal cords are located.

  • Subglottis: The lower part of the larynx between the vocal cords and the trachea

  • There are different types of treatment for patients with laryngeal cancer.

  • Four types of standard treatment are used:

  • Radiation therapy

  • Surgery

  • Chemotherapy

  • Immunotherapy

  • New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

  • Targeted therapy

  • Radiosensitizers

Radiation therapy


Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer.

Radiation therapy may work better in patients who have stopped smoking before beginning treatment. External radiation therapy to the thyroid or the pituitary gland may change the way the thyroid gland works. A blood test to check the thyroid hormone level in the body may be done before and after therapy to make sure the thyroid gland is working properly.

Hyperfractionated radiation therapy may be used to treat laryngeal cancer. Hyperfractionated radiation therapy is radiation treatment in which a smaller than usual total daily dose of radiation is divided into two doses and the treatments are given twice a day. Hyperfractionated radiation therapy is given over the same period of time (days or weeks) as standard radiation therapy. New types of radiation therapy are being studied in the treatment of laryngeal cancer.


Surgery


Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is a common treatment for all stages of laryngeal cancer. The following surgical procedures may be used:

After the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.


Chemotherapy


Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy).


Immunotherapy


Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This cancer treatment is a type of biologic therapy.

  • PD-1 and PD-L1 inhibitor therapy: PD-1 is a protein on the surface of T cells that helps keep the body’s immune responses in check. PD-L1 is a protein found on some types of cancer cells. When PD-1 attaches to PD-L1, it stops the T cell from killing the cancer cell. PD-1 and PD-L1 inhibitors keep PD-1 and PD-L1 proteins from attaching to each other. This allows the T cells to kill cancer cells. Nivolumab and pembrolizumab are types of PD-1 inhibitors used to treat metastatic or recurrent laryngeal cancer

Targeted therapy


Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do.

  • Monoclonal antibodies: Monoclonal antibodies are immune system proteins made in the laboratory to treat many diseases, including cancer. As a cancer treatment, these antibodies can attach to a specific target on cancer cells or other cells that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies are able to then kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells. Cetuximab is used in the treatment of laryngeal cancer.

Lip and oral cavity cancers

The oral cavity includes the following:

Two types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery


Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is a common treatment for all stages of lip and oral cavity cancer. Surgery may include the following:

  • Wide local excision: Removal of the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it. If cancer has spread into bone, surgery may include removal of the involved bone tissue.

  • Neck dissection: Removal of lymph nodes and other tissues in the neck. This is done when cancer may have spread from the lip and oral cavity.

  • Plastic surgery: An operation that restores or improves the appearance of parts of the body. Dental implants, a skin graft, or other plastic surgery may be needed to repair parts of the mouth, throat, or neck after removal of large tumors.

After the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.


Radiation therapy


Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:

Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Three types of standard treatment are used:

Radiation therapy


Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:

  • Certain ways of giving radiation therapy can help keep radiation from damaging nearby healthy tissue. These types of radiation therapy include the following:

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT is a type of 3-dimensional (3-D) radiation therapy that uses a computer to make pictures of the size and shape of the tumor. Thin beams of radiation of different intensities (strengths) are aimed at the tumor from many angles. Compared to standard radiation therapy, intensity-modulated radiation therapy may be less likely to cause dry mouth.

  • Stereotactic radiation therapy: A rigid head frame is attached to the skull to keep the head still during the radiation treatment. A machine aims radiation directly at the tumor. The total dose of radiation is divided into several smaller doses given over several days. This procedure is also called stereotactic external-beam radiation therapy and stereotaxic radiation therapy.

  • Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.

The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External and internal radiation therapy are used to treat nasopharyngeal cancer.

External radiation therapy to the thyroid or the pituitary gland may change the way the thyroid gland works. A blood test to check the thyroid hormone level in the blood is done before and after therapy to make sure the thyroid gland is working properly. It is also important that a dentist check the patient’s teeth, gums, and mouth, and fix any existing problems before radiation therapy begins.


Chemotherapy


Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy).

Chemotherapy may be given after radiation therapy to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after radiation therapy, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

Surgery


Surgery is a procedure to find out whether cancer is present, to remove cancer from the body, or to repair a body part. Also called an operation. Surgery is sometimes used for nasopharyngeal cancer that does not respond to radiation therapy. If cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the doctor may remove lymph nodes and other tissues in the neck.

Oropharyngeal Cancer

four types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery


Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is a common treatment of all stages of oropharyngeal cancer. A surgeon may remove the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around the cancer. After the surgeon removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

New types of surgery, including transoral robotic surgery, are being studied for the treatment of oropharyngeal cancer. Transoral robotic surgery may be used to remove cancer from hard-to-reach areas of the mouth and throat. Cameras attached to a robot give a 3-dimensional (3D) image that a surgeon can see. Using a computer, the surgeon guides very small tools at the ends of the robot arms to remove the cancer. This procedure may also be done using an endoscope.


Radiation therapy


Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer.

Chemotherapy


Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy).

Targeted therapy


Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do. Monoclonal antibodies are a type of targeted therapy being used in the treatment of oropharyngeal cancer.

Monoclonal antibodies are immune system proteins made in the laboratory to treat many diseases, including cancer. As a cancer treatment, these antibodies can attach to a specific target on cancer cells or other cells that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies are able to then kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells.

Cetuximab is a type of monoclonal antibody that works by binding to a protein on the surface of the cancer cells and stops the cells from growing and dividing. It is used in the treatment of recurrent and metastatic oropharyngeal cancer.

Immunotherapy


Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer. This cancer treatment is a type of biologic therapy.

PD-1 is a protein on the surface of T cells that helps keep the body’s immune responses in check. PD-L1 is a protein found on some types of cancer cells. When PD-1 attaches to PD-L1, it stops the T cell from killing the cancer cell. PD-1 and PD-L1 inhibitors keep PD-1 and PD-L1 proteins from attaching to each other. This allows the T cells to kill cancer cells.

Pembrolizumab and nivolumab are types of PD-1 inhibitors being studied in the treatment of oropharnygeal cancer.


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