Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer is the term given to a variety of malignant tumours that develop in the oral cavity (mouth), the pharynx (throat), the nasal cavity and the larynx.

Factors known to contribute to the risk of developing head and neck cancer include age (men over 40 years of age have a particularly high incidence); sunlight (for lip cancers); alcohol abuse; smoking or other tobacco use and - with increasing importance - human Papilloma viruses (HPV).

Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas; however, other tumour types may also be seen.

More than 90% of head and neck tumours develop in the mucosa of the oral cavity, the tongue, the pharynx and the larynx. In 2008, more than 600,000 new cases were reported worldwide, of which 350,000 were fatal. The past ten years showed an incline in the appearance of head and neck tumours, especially in women.

The most common symptoms of head and neck cancer include a persistent pain or numbness in the throat; pain or difficulty with swallowing; a persistent hoarseness or a change in voice quality; and bleeding in the mouth or throat. Sores or lesions in the oral cavity can be signs of a developing oral cancer. The first important sign of head and neck cancer may be enlargement of a lymph gland in the neck, which is often painless.

Cancers of the head and neck are curable if caught early enough. Therefore, it is very important that a doctor is consulted.

The type of therapy used to treat head and neck cancer depends on the location, size and type of tumour. The options include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and photodynamic therapy (PDT).

Surgery aims to completely remove the cancer, and may include removal of affected lymph nodes or bone, if necessary. Reconstructive or plastic surgery may also be required.

Radiotherapy (the use of high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells) may be used with or without surgery to destroy areas of cancer that cannot be removed surgically.

Chemotherapy (the use of anticancer drugs to eliminate cancer cells) may be used in conjunction with surgery or radiotherapy to try to increase their effectiveness.

Photodynamic therapy, a light-activated therapy using the latest drug and laser technology, has recently become available for patients with advanced head and neck cancer. Patients receive a light-sensitive drug by injection. Then, 4 days later, the tumour is illuminated with a laser light to activate the drug. The aim of Photodynamic therapy is to obtain local clearance of the tumour, and thus reduce any symptoms associated with the cancer.