What You Need To Know About Head and Neck Cancer

By Pat Carragher - April 02, 2024

Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers of the mouth and throat are just two of the many types of head and neck cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, about 58,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer this year. About 12,000 will die from the diseases.

For Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, we asked Dr. Guilherme Rabinowits, an oncologist in the Head and Neck Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, Dr. Deepa Danan, a head and neck surgeon, and Dr. George Yang, a radiation oncologist, some of the most pressing questions about these diseases.

Here’s what they had to say:

What are head and neck cancers?

Rabinowits: Head and neck cancers are malignancies that happen above the collarbone but don’t include the brain. Typically these cancers happen inside the oral cavity like the tongue, mouth, jaw, throat, voice box, the nasal cavities, as well as the thyroid and salivary glands.

What are some risk factors for head and neck cancers?

Yang: The most common risk factors have traditionally been smoking and alcohol use. In recent years there’s been more human papillomavirus (HPV) related cancers in the tonsils and tongue so it’s important to get vaccinated.

What are the most common and most rare types of head and neck cancers?

Rabinowits: The most common types are tongue and mouth cancers, followed by the larynx and pharynx. The rare forms occur in the salivary glands and the nasopharynx in the back of the nose.

What types of surgeries are available for head and neck cancers?

Danan: There’s a very wide array of procedures available. It can be something small like a biopsy to find and identify the type of cancer that is causing issues, all the way up to a 14-hour surgery where we remove the tumor of the jaw and repair it with part of a bone from the leg.

What types of radiation are available to treat head and neck cancers?

Yang: The most common type we use is photon-based radiation. It’s a high energy light particle that we’re able to shape where it goes into the body, how it targets a tumor and avoid healthy tissue. The most common way to do this is through intensity modulated radiation therapy. You may have also heard of proton-based radiation. It’s really exciting and it’s coming to Moffitt’s SPEROS FL campus in the near future.

What is the surgery recovery process like?

Danan: It’s going to depend on how extensive the surgery is. If we’re taking tissue from one part of the body to replace it in another part, that’s going to take a few weeks. It’ll be one week in the hospital and then further recovery at home. Speech and eating may also be affected so patients are all seen by speech pathologists and physical therapists while they’re in the hospital and then they can be seen either as an outpatient or in their home for therapy.

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