The life altering effects of cancer can be reduced if caught early.
Approximately 66,630 new head and neck cancer cases will be detected in the United States this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. These cancers account for roughly 4% of all cancers in the country today and are more than twice as common among men as they are among women.
Early detection of most any cancer results in superior outcomes as the cancer will be at an earlier stage, often requiring less aggressive therapy. This is of critical importance in the field of head and neck cancer. Malignant tumors of the head and neck threaten organs and structures that play critical roles in speech, swallowing, breathing, and appearance. When caught early they can be treated with a single treatment modality, which may be surgery or radiation. If the cancer is allowed to progress and become more locally invasive or potentially spread to the lymph nodes of the head and neck, multiple treatment modalities are almost always required in the form of chemotherapy plus radiation or surgery followed by chemoradiation. Thankfully, routine visits to your primary care physician, dental provider, or local ENT physician are excellent opportunities to undergo a routine head and neck screening examination.
As always, prevention is superior to early detection. Historically, the recommended approach is avoid using tobacco, particularly smoking, maintain good oral hygiene, limit alcohol intake, and avoiding exposure to dangerous fumes. Today, there is another recommendation with great promise to decrease head and neck cancer rates in the country, vaccination against human papilloma virus (HPV).
Over the last two decades, HPV has been identified as the underlying cause of more than 70% of oropharyngeal (throat) cancers in the US. It is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the US and is nearly ubiquitous in the sexually active population. While exposure to HPV often occurs early in a patient’s life, the virus may occasionally lay dormant for years and even decades before activating a malignancy, typically in the tonsil or back of a patient’s tongue.
For decades, it has been recognized as the cause of cervical cancer in women. Thankfully, although hundreds of subtypes exist, only a few are responsible for the vast majority of malignancy. A vaccine has been developed against the most common subtypes that can result in malignancy. It has been widely successful in preventing cervical cancer in women as it has been recommended for young girls prior to the onset of adolescence. Today, it is recommended for all children around the age of 11-12 and any adult up to 26. Additionally, adults up to the age of 46 are candidates for the vaccine, but the benefits may be limited due to the high likelihood of prior exposure to HPV.
Head and neck cancer is often a devastating diagnosis with life altering consequences and permanent effects on a patient’s quality of life. Through prevention and early identification, we can hope to limit its ability to damage lives.