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Head & Neck Cancer

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer is a broad term used to describe cancers that typically begin in the mucosal surfaces contained in the head and neck, including the lips, mouth, nose and throat. These cancers normally begin in squamous cells, so you may come across articles or blogs about “squamous cell carcinomas” as you research head and neck cancer. (Head and neck cancer can also occur in glandular cells, like the salivary glands. These are referred to as adenocarcinomas.)

Head and neck cancer accounts for just three percent of all cancers in the U.S., affecting approximately 61,760 people per year, mostly men. About 73% of diagnoses are in men. 27% are in women.

Defining Types of Head and Neck Cancers

These cancers are commonly identified by the location of their origin:

Oral cavity: Includes most of what you would consider the mouth, from the lips, gums, inside of the cheeks, most of the tongue, beneath the tongue, roof of the mouth and area behind the wisdom teeth.

  • Salivary glands (major and minor): This area includes tissues beneath the tongue, under the jawline, in front of the ears, and some portions of the upper digestive tract.
  • Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: The paranasal sinuses include four small pockets of air that surround the nose.

Head and neck cancer can also occur in the pharynx, larynx, thyroid, tonsil, throat and lymph nodes in the upper part of the back.

What are the risk factors for head and neck cancer?

The following traits or behaviors can increase risk for head and neck cancer:

  • Males are at greater risk than females
  • Blacks are at higher risk than whites
  • Being over the age of 45
  • Using any form of tobacco, including exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Alcohol use
  • Combination of ethanol and tobacco creates an especially high-risk situation
  • Exposure to asbestos, nickel or polyvinyl chloride
  • Exposure to mustard gas
  • Exposure to defoliating agents
  • Poor oral hygiene that may cause irritation of mucosa

Each specific head and neck cancer carries its own set of risk factors, as well.

Are there symptoms of head and neck cancer?

Unfortunately, many head and neck cancers are not detected until the tumors have reached an advanced stage. There are some general symptoms of head and cancer to be aware of. Talk to a physician if you experience:

  • Sore throat that does not resolve in a normal time period
  • Mass (may or may not be painful)
  • Ulcer (red or white patch in mouth)
  • Referred or localized pain
  • Neurologic defects
  • Hoarseness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Blood in saliva and/or frequent nose bleeds or nasal discharge
  • Pain or difficulty in chewing or swallowing
  • Pain in the ear and/or jaw

How do you screen for and detect head and neck cancer?

Your health care team at Jordan Valley Cancer Center may use biopsy or diagnostic image tools like MRI, PET & CT scans to screen for head and neck cancer.

The Stages of Head & Neck Cancer

The “TNM cancer staging system,” developed by the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) has helped health care providers create a shared language for discussing head and neck cancer stages. During the head/neck cancer staging process, your physician will assign values to each of these qualifiers:

  • T – Tumor: Refers to size of primary tumor
  • N – Node: Refers to lymph node involvement
  • M – Metastasis: Refers to the metastasized (spreading) of the cancer

How do you treat head and neck cancer?

At Jordan Valley Cancer Center, patients have the unique opportunity to visit with a wide range of oncology specialists who bring unique insights to the treatment of head and neck cancers. As medical professionals continue to learn about cancer and how it works, no single physician has all the answers. By combining the advanced knowledge and practiced techniques of a variety of specialists, we hope to provide patients with the highest level of care for head and neck cancer. Select a treatment to learn more about it:

Radiation for Head & Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancers can present challenges for radiation oncologists, as the tissues that require treatment are typically extremely close to other healthy organs that need to be preserved. For example, treating a sinus with radiation could put the optic nerve (and a patient’s eyesight) at risk; treating the thyroid could damage the spinal cord.

One way radiation oncologists at Jordan Valley Cancer Center work through these challenges is by using one of the most sophisticated radiation technologies in the world, Elekta Versa HD, utilizing VMAT (Volumetric Modulated Arc Therapy).  Elekta VMAT allows target dose delivery to be optimized to each individual patient’s needs and their pathology.  In this way, it provides highly personalized patient treatment and opens up new treatment opportunities.  Through a unique partnership with Gamma West Cancer Services, Jordan Valley Cancer Center is revolutionizing the way head and neck cancers are treated.

Benefits of Elekta Versa HD and VMAT for Head & Neck Cancer

The Elekta Versa HD utilizes many sophisticated systems to target Cancer.  KV Cone Beam allows radiation therapists to obtain accurate images of patient anatomy.  These images are then utilized to obtain submillimeter accuracy.  Exact patient positioning is enhanced via a computer-controlled robotic table.  The HexaPod table has six degrees of freedom and can correct for roll, pitch and yaw.  This allows for the most highly aligned and targeted radiation possible with maximum preservation of surrounding healthy tissues.

  • Radiation is targeted based on that day’s CT scan – not a scan that is days or weeks old.
  • 360º delivery of radiation with the linear accelerator (LINAC). In addition to improving effectiveness, this helps reduce the risk of short- and long-term side effects.
  • Patented multi-leaf collimator (MLC) splits radiation beams into tens of thousands of tiny beamlets, which are software-engineered to maximize effectiveness and minimize risk.
  • Elekta VMAT allows treatment times to be reduced significantly compared to conventional delivery and helical tomotherapy.

Elekta HD and VMAT Applications In Head & Neck Cancers

Elekta VMAT may be used for the following head and neck cancers. This list is not comprehensive. Ask your oncologist at Jordan Valley Cancer Center for more information about Elekta HD and VMAT for treating cancer:

  • Nasal and Sinus Cancer: Cancers in these pockets near the front of the face can be very close to the eyes, optic nerves and front of the brain. Some sinus tumors may be close to the spinal cord or parotid glands, which are large saliva-producing glands. Treatment can be risky with traditional radiation therapy. While no treatment can completely eliminate risk, Elekta VMAT does offer physicians a greater opportunity to target the cancer while protecting all of the healthy structures around the nasal and sinus cavities.
  • Oral Cancer: Many oral cancers are further away from the structures that could be a concern when treating nasal and sinus cancer; however, treating oral cancers does require the physician to take certain precautions for protecting the spinal cord. Elekta VMAT allows radiation oncologists to effectively treat oral cancers while protecting the spinal cord.
  • Throat Cancers (Pharynx, Esophagus and Trachea): The pharynx connects the esophagus to the nose and mouth; the esophagus connects the throat to the stomach; and the trachea allows air to pass into the lungs. These tissues, along with the throat, larynx and other structures are in very close proximity to one another. Treating these cancers with Elekta VMAT allows physicians to carefully target the cancerous cells while preserving the tissues that should not receive radiation.
  • Thyroid Cancer: The thyroid produces hormones that regulate energy use throughout the body. Small nodules may appear on the thyroid; sometimes, these nodules are cancerous and require treatment. Radiation oncologists at Jordan Valley Cancer Center aim to treat these cancerous cells while preserving the parathyroid glands, trachea, spinal cord and esophagus, all of which are situated directly behind the thyroid.

Radiation Therapy for Head & Neck Cancer In West Jordan, UT

Physicians at Jordan Valley Cancer Center take an integrative approach to head and neck cancer treatment. The collaborative nature of our facility, which unites the strengths of medical, surgical and radiation oncologists under one roof, helps ensure patients receive treatment plans that are custom tailored for their needs. To learn more about our process, which includes pairing each patient with a Nurse Navigator who can provide education, resources and guidance, please contact us by calling 801-601-2260. Jordan Valley Cancer Center serves patients in West Jordan, Millcreek, Salt Lake City, UT, and beyond.

The Patient Experience at Jordan Valley Cancer Center

At Jordan Valley Cancer Center, patients benefit from having their own Nurse Navigator, who provides assistance in understanding the options and making informed decisions about treatment. If you pursue treatment at Jordan Valley Cancer Center, we encourage you to make full use of your Nurse Navigator. We are here to serve you and help you receive the best possible diagnosis, treatment and support as you move on to survivorship. For more information, contact us at 801-601-2260.