Advocate Radiation Oncology

Understanding head and neck cancers

Understanding head and neck cancers hero

When patients receive a cancer diagnosis, they typically ask how it developed. Pinpointing a cause can be difficult.
Risk factors for head and neck cancer can often be attributed to use of tobacco products and alcohol, viral infections, genetics or exposure to occupational hazards like sawdust, asbestos or radiation, among other factors.

April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, and the board-certified radiation oncologists at Advocate Radiation Oncology join their colleagues nationwide in raising awareness about the risks, symptoms and treatment options for head and neck cancer, which accounts for nearly 4% of all cancers in the U.S.

Advocate’s world-class physicians are experienced in treating the gamut of head and neck cancers, as well as breast, prostate, lung, brain, rectal, liver, bone, cervical and other types of cancers.

Brain Cancer vs. Head and Neck Cancer

Brain tumors can grow quickly, have a multitude of severe symptoms and disrupt the way your body functions, so it’s understandable that a brain cancer diagnosis is worrisome. However, brain cancer is different than head and neck cancer, a broad term describing a group of cancers affecting the throat and sinuses. According to the American Cancer Society, there are five primary types of head and neck cancers:

  • Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer: voice box and lower throat
  • Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer: mouth and middle throat
  • Nasopharyngeal Cancer: upper throat behind nose
  • Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancer: nose and openings behind nose
  • Salivary Gland Cancer: glands that make saliva

The variety of head and neck cancers also means symptoms can vary. Common signs and symptoms include lumps, hoarseness, sores, pain swallowing, nasal congestion or difficulty breathing, numbness, ear pain, ear infections, loosening of teeth, weight loss and loss of hearing, taste or smell.

Survival rates vary by cancer type and stage, but can be high if detected and treated early.

Treatment Options

Radiation therapy is a popular treatment option that uses targeted doses of radiation to kill cancer cells by damaging the genetic material inside them. This treatment prevents cancer cells from growing and spreading.

Radiation oncologists work collaboratively with otolaryngologists, medical oncologists, surgeons and other medical professionals to develop a personalized treatment plan based on an individual’s medical history, the cancer’s present state and other factors. Radiation therapy can be used as the sole treatment option or in combination with chemotherapy treatments and surgery.

Because head and neck cancers affect our critical senses – hearing, taste, smell and sight – there is no room for error during treatments. Advocate has invested in the most innovative, precise cancer-fighting equipment on the market today, including Varian’s Halcyon, TrueBeam and Identify machines that measure precision within a millimeter. Such precise treatments minimize damage to surrounding tissue, and thus lessen potential side effects of radiation while reducing treatment times.

We know our bodies best. If you suspect something is wrong or have a concern, the first step is immediately contacting your primary care physician. From there, Advocate will partner with you and your physician to develop a comprehensive plan to defeat cancer.