Being diagnosed with a head and neck cancer can be life-changing. So many day-to-day functions depend on that area of the body: eating, drinking, speaking, swallowing and breathing.
At Sutter cancer centers, you partner with a primary oncologist (cancer specialist) as well as an entire team of doctors, therapists and other health professionals who are dedicated to making sure you get the best treatment possible, as well as any rehabilitation and support services needed.
Before you begin treatment, a group of doctors with expertise in several types of cancer treatment (sometimes called a tumor board) will meet to discuss your test results and diagnosis, and will collaborate on a treatment plan for you.
Across the Sutter Health network, we offer a variety of diagnostic procedures, including:
- Endoscopy — Your doctor uses a thin, flexible tube with a camera (endoscope) to perform an exam.
- Videostroboscopy — A special endoscope is used to look at your vocal cords and see how well they are functioning.
- Biopsy — Your doctor removes a tissue sample to send to a pathology lab for analysis. Samples are obtained using a surgical knife or by inserting a thin, hollow needle into the area and withdrawing tissue (fine needle aspiration).
Several types of imaging exams can help to diagnose head and neck cancers, including CT scan, MRI, ultrasound, bone scan and PET scan. A special type of rotating X-ray machine, called a panorex, may be used to get a comprehensive X-ray of your jaws and teeth.
Another imaging test often used to diagnose head and neck cancer is a barium swallow (upper GI series). It can help your doctor to see where problems are located in your throat.
Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor might suggest one of several chemotherapy options.
In some cases, chemotherapy will be the main treatment, rather than surgery. Or chemotherapy may be used after surgery, often in conjunction with radiation therapy, to try to destroy any cancer cells left behind.
Another treatment option is targeted therapy. These drugs attack specific characteristics found on your cancer cells, such as proteins that help the cells divide.
Radiation therapy is used as the primary treatment for some small cancers of the head and neck. It is also often used after surgery, to treat any additional cancer cells left behind, and sometimes before surgery to shrink a tumor.
Surgery is often used to remove tumors found in the head and neck area. Surgeons in the Sutter Health network use a variety of procedures including:
- Cordectomy — The vocal cords are removed (or a portion of them).
- Laryngectomy — Part or all of the voice box (larynx) is removed. If the entire larynx is taken out, the surgeon will need to perform a tracheotomy, a surgical procedure that connects your windpipe to a hole in the front of your neck, allowing you to breathe.
- Laser Therapy — Tissues are vaporized or cut out with the use of a high-intensity laser light that sits on the end of an endoscope.
- Mohs Micrographic Surgery — The surgeon removes a thin layer of tissue, which is then immediately examined under a microscope. If cancer cells are present, the surgeon removes another layer, which is then examined. This is repeated until the surgeon has removed a layer that contains no cancerous cells.
In some cases, your surgeon may perform a robot-assisted procedure, which allows very precise movements in less accessible areas and also makes smaller incisions.
Treatment for head and neck cancer can be disruptive, possibly altering your appearance as well as how you breathe and eat. Your doctor will talk with you about reconstructive surgery options.
Your doctor may also talk with you about pain management and palliative services, which can help keep you feeling as well as possible. In addition, special services and support professionals can help you cope with the many changes in your life, with support groups, nutritional counseling, behavioral health services and more.