Head and neck cancer refers to cancers that develop in the mouth, throat, sinuses/nasal cavity, larynx, and base of the skull. These cancers are uncommon, accounting for only about three percent of all U.S. cancers. They affect men twice as often as women, and are generally found in older people.
NewYork-Presbyterian's head and neck cancer team provides advanced care to patients with cancers that develop in the head and neck region. Our team creates a personalized treatment plan for each patient, and team members meet regularly to discuss patients' care and progress. Our goal is threefold: to eradicate the cancer, preserve patients' appearance and function, and minimize the effects of treatment on their quality of life.
The specialists treat patients with a combination of approaches including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. We collaborate with dietitians, speech and swallowing therapists, and dental oncologists to ensure that our patients maintain proper health while undergoing treatment. We also maintain an active clinical research program to develop new treatments for head and neck cancer, and we offer a variety of clinical trials to patients with these diseases.
Smoking and alcohol abuse are linked with approximately 75 percent of these cancers and are a major risk factor, particularly when combined. In the United States, infection with human papilloma virus (HPV) is increasingly a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers, especially oropharyngeal cancer (which involves the tonsils or the base of the tongue). Habits in certain cultures, such as drinking mate, a tea-like beverage consumed by South Americans, or chewing betel quid, a common practice in Southeast Asia, are known to increase cancers of the oral cavity. Being infected with the Epstein-Barr virus is a risk factor for pharyngeal cancer, as is exposure to wood dust.
Symptoms of head and neck cancers vary depending on the cancer's type, location, and stage, but they may include: white or red patches inside the mouth or on the lips, a mouth or lip sore that won't heal, loose teeth, difficulty or pain during swallowing, a lump in the neck, a persistent earache, persistent hoarseness or other unexplained voice changes, a persistent sore throat or feeling that something is stuck in the throat, and unexplained weight loss. Conditions other than head and neck cancer can cause these symptoms too, and patients with any symptoms should see a doctor to determine the cause.
Our doctors determine the best treatment approach for each patient with head and neck cancer by taking into account the type, location, and stage of the disease as well as the patient's age and physical health.
Our surgeons take a minimally invasive approach to head and neck cancer surgery whenever possible. They often remove tumors endoscopically, which allows them access to the tumor through the mouth or the nose. This approach eliminates incisions in the skin, speeding patients' recovery, and reducing the length of their hospital stays. When patients require more extensive surgery, our surgical oncologists work closely with reconstructive surgeons to preserve form and function in patients with head and neck cancers.
Our radiation oncologists typically use intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) for head and neck cancer treatment. IMRT delivers highly targeted radiation in various intensities to the contours of the tumor, sparing nearby healthy tissue. They may also use image-guided radiation therapy, which delivers treatment while taking into account tumor movement and response to treatment over time.
Chemotherapy is used to treat some head and neck cancers, alone or in combination with surgery and radiation.