Head & Neck Cancer
Cancer Care That’s Ahead of the Rest.
Head & Neck Cancer Care at Allegheny Health Network
Representing about 3% of all cancers, most head and neck cancers develop from malignant tumors found in and around the base of the skull, eye sockets (called orbits), throat, larynx, thyroid, nose, sinuses, and mouth.
While cancers affecting the head and neck are rare, at Allegheny Health Network you can still rely on the strength of our vigorous research programs and pioneering new clinical trials and therapies. Our cancer care team, along with your 24/7 Care Navigator, coordinates a personalized treatment for you, supporting your challenges, helping you better manage your emotions, listening to your concerns and strengthening your overall well-being.
Click on the links below to learn more about the types and treatments for head and neck and how the Allegheny Health Network Cancer Institute diagnoses and treats eye cancer.
Diagnosing Head & Neck Cancer
Most types of head and neck cancers start in the squamous cells that line the moist surface inside the head and neck, including the mouth, nose, and throat.
Patients who use tobacco, are heavy users of alcohol or have been infected with the human papillomavirus (which causes abnormal cell changes or warts to appear in the mucous membranes), or HPV, are at an increased risk. Patients who use both tobacco and alcohol are at a greater risk than if they used only one or the other.
Symptoms of head and neck cancer include a lump in the neck or growth in the mouth, a change in your voice, blood in the saliva or phlegm, problems in swallowing, a persistent earache or changes in the skin, particularly around areas that are typically sun-exposed.
Here at the Cancer Institute, we use sophisticated screening and diagnostic technologies that provide you with a precise and accurate diagnosis. Our doctors, radiologists, and clinicians are highly specialized in the detection and evaluation of head and neck cancer and use state-of-the-art imaging and diagnostic resources to determine the location, stage and type of cancer, as well as screen, prevent and treat your cancer.
Our advanced diagnostic tests for head and neck cancer include:
- Biopsy. This procedure removes tissue samples (with a needle or during surgery) for examination under a microscope to determine if cancer or other abnormal cells are present.
- Computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan). Using a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of your body, a CT scan is more detailed than general X-rays. This scan provides detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs.
- Endoscopy. This small fiber optic scope is used to examine the oropharynx and oral cavity.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This imaging technique uses powerful magnets and radio waves to produce detailed images of organs and structures within your body.
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scan. This test injects a radioactive-tagged glucose (sugar) into a patient’s bloodstream and then a scanner takes images of the body. Tissues that use the glucose more than most normal tissues (such as tumors) can be detected by the scanning machine and will show up on the images. The images are then aligned with CT scan to allow physicians to compare the PET and CT findings together.
- Ultrasonography. This diagnostic imaging technique uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of internal organs.
Treating Head & Neck Cancer
Treatment for head and neck cancer is dependent on what stage of the cancer (where it is contained or has spread to surrounding tissues) it is in, whether the tumor can be completely removed by surgery and your overall health. Depending on the type and stage of the cancer, treatment can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy. These options are explained further below.
At the Cancer Institute, our team of doctors and surgeons, and radiation and medical oncologists ensure that you have access to the highest quality of care available, including every possible treatment, procedure and clinical trial best suited for your situation.
Surgeons at the Cancer Institute utilize the latest techniques and technologies, and are among the most experienced in the country. Their expertise ensures that you receive the highest quality of care with the best possible outcome.
Our extensive surgical treatment options include:
- Thyroidectomy. This procedure is performed when it is necessary to remove the thyroid and sometimes the nearby lymph nodes.
- Primary tumor resection. This procedure removes the entire tumor and surrounding area of tissue.
- Maxillectomy. This procedure removes the tumor, and if bone is involved, part or all of the hard palate (roof of your mouth.
- Glossectomy. This procedure involves the removal of the tongue.
- Laryngectomy. This procedure is performed when it becomes necessary to remove a large tumor of your tongue or oropharynx, which may also involve removing your larynx (voice box).
- Neck dissection. This procedure is performed when the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in your neck; and may involved their complete removal.
- Parathyroidectomy. This procedure involves the removal of the parathyroid glands.
- Reconstructive plastic surgery. This surgery helps restore your appearance after certain oral cancer surgeries. Reconstructive surgery can also help you to regain the ability to speak or swallow.
Treatment for your head and neck cancer may not require surgery. In some cases, Radiation Therapy is used to shrink and destroy cancer cells. Along with your doctor, you can decide what course of treatment will be most beneficial as it relates to your overall diagnosis.
Here at the Cancer Institute we use state-of-the-art technology, including advanced computer software and imaging, to administer high–dose radiation beams directly to a tumor, minimizing your overall exposure.
As the only radiation oncology network accredited in western Pennsylvania by both the American Society for Radiation Oncology and American College of Radiology, you can feel assured knowing you are receiving the highest quality care available. This accreditation means that the Cancer Institute at Allegheny Health Network meets specific guidelines for patient safety, quality control, and efficiency of equipment.
The Cancer Institute’s advanced radiation therapies include:
- Image-guided radiotherapy (IGRT). This therapy uses frequent imaging to delivery precise and accurate radiation therapy. This technology allows doctors to image a tumor immediately before or during radiation treatment, making necessary adjustments as needed for precise tumor targeting with minimal harm to surrounding healthy tissues.
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). This therapy uses sophisticated computer technology to map the precise dimensions and density of cancerous tumors. Afterward, virtual treatment simulations are performed, and with minimal harm to surrounding healthy tissue, the radiation dose's shape and intensity is conformed to the simulation's exact parameters.
The department of Medical Oncology specializes in diagnosing and caring for patients with a variety of medicines, including chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Medicines are administered by mouth (oral) or by vein (intravenous) depending upon the treatment plan developed by your primary doctor or medical oncologist.
Throughout your care, your doctor will coordinate your medication needs and your 24/7 Care Navigator may also be a part of this coordinated care effort.
The Cancer Institute’s advanced medical oncology therapies include:
- Chemotherapy. Similar in the same way that antibiotics kill bacteria, chemotherapy kills cancer cells. Because of the potency of these drugs, and their ability to sometimes also damage normal cells, side effects can occur, including hair loss, nausea and lowered blood counts. Fortunately, your body’s normal cells repair themselves much better than cancer cells. Throughout your treatment, we carefully monitor your wellness and determine medication requirements that can reduce side effects and maximize the chemotherapy’s effectiveness.
- Targeted therapy. This therapy is less toxic, and in some cases, more effective than traditional chemotherapy. It works by attacking specific genes within the surrounding blood vessels that help cancer to grow.
- Immunotherapy. This form of biological therapy is designed to help your immune system fight your cancer better. Working to enhance immune system function at the cellular level, immunotherapy utilizes cancer vaccines, genetically engineered human immune stimulatory molecules, and monoclonal antibodies (cloned antibodies from healthy cells used to support the immune system to help it fight cancer).
As with any cancer therapy or treatment, your medical oncologist or primary care doctor, in conjunction with your 24/7 Care Navigator, will with work with you to determine how best to treat your cancer.