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Head and Neck Cancer: What You Can Expect

separator Head and neck cancers refer to cancers that develop in the cells of the mucosal surfaces of the mouth, nose and throat. Mucosal surfaces are the moist tissues that line the body’s hollow cavities that are exposed to the environment. These cancers can affect the lips, part of the tongue, areas inside the mouth, salivary glands, the space inside the nose, the pharynx (a hollow tube, about 5 inches, that starts behind the nose), the larynx (also called the voice box) and lymph nodes in the neck. 

Cancers that start in other parts of the head and neck area, such as the brain, eye, thyroid, skin and scalp, do not fall under the “head and neck cancer” category. 

Head and neck cancers comprise 3 to 5 percent of all cancers in the U.S. They’re most common in men over 50. It’s estimated that more than 39,000 men and women will develop head and neck cancer in 2005. 

Common head and neck cancer treatments
Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on a variety of factors, including the location of the tumor, the stage the cancer is in, your age and your overall health. You should talk carefully with your doctor about treatment, and be sure you understand how the treatment will affect they way you’ll look, the way you’ll be able to talk, eat and breathe. 

Before you start your treatment, you may want to get a second opinion. Some insurance plans even require it. There are different ways to do this. Your doctor may be able to recommend someone, or there may be an approved list from your insurance plan. Nearby hospitals or medical schools can also probably refer you to a specialist. You could also try the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information line at 1-800-4-CANCER. 

Common head and neck cancer treatments
Common treatment for head and neck cancer include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. 

  • Surgery: Surgery for head and neck cancer can sometimes affect the way you chew, swallow or talk. You may also experience swelling, which can last for a long time, especially if you have surgery on your lymph nodes. If you’ve had surgery on your larynx, parts of your neck and throat may feel numb. Surgery in the lymph nodes of your neck can cause weakness and stiffness in the shoulder and neck area.
  • Radiation: Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. When people have radiation in the head and neck area, they may experience redness, irritation, sores in the mouth, a dry mouth, thickened saliva, difficulty swallowing, changes in the way food tastes or even an inability to taste food at all, earaches and nausea. Some patients also experience swelling or drooping of the skin under the chin and the skin may also change texture.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy drugs affect the cells in the body that grow rapidly. These include blood cells that fight infection, cells that line the mouth and the digestive tract and cells in the hair follicles. Side effects include decreased ability to fight infection, sores in the mouth and lips, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting and hair loss. Chemotherapy can make you feel extremely tired as well.

Rehabilitation, follow-up are important
Rehabilitation is a key part of the treatment for head and neck cancer. Your healthcare team will work closely with you to do everything they can to help you get back to your normal activities. Rehab can include speech therapy, physical therapy, counseling about nutrition and diet and, if you’ve had your larynx removed, learning how to care for your stoma (the opening to your windpipe, which you breathe through). 

After you’ve had your treatment and been through rehab, you’ll need to see your doctors regularly to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned or that new cancer hasn’t developed.  

What can you do to prevent a second head and neck cancer?
Research shows that the chances that you’ll develop a second head and neck cancer are higher if you smoke and drink alcohol. If you smoke, now is the time to quit. At this stressful time, quitting smoking is probably harder than ever. But if you work with your doctor on the best way to do this for you, you have a better chance of success. 

Additional resource
If you’ve experienced facial disfigurement as a result of your cancer treatment, you may be interested in a group called Let’s Face It USA, a nonprofit organization that helps connect people with facial disfigurement to resources that can enrich their lives.

The American Cancer Society; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; The National Cancer Institute.
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