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There are many types of cancers that can affect the head and neck region, and are typically associated with the specific tissue types that are involved.  Oral, tongue, throat, vocal cord, salivary gland, nasal, sinus, ear, and skin cancers all constitute cancers that can spread to the neck lymph nodes, and possibly to more distant sites in the body.  Lymph nodes are located throughout our body and produce immune cells that fight infection.  These lymph nodes use special channels that collect and transport foreign material that is continuously examined by our immune cells.  It is through these channels, as well as the bloodstream, that cancer cells spread throughout the body.

Causes:

  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Family history
  • History of previous cancer
  • Wood/Leather manufacturing products (sinus cancer)
  • Sun exposure (skin cancer)
  • Other

Diagnosis:

  1. Biopsy:
    Tissue biopsy is the gold standard for diagnosis of benign and malignant tumors.  The method of biopsy depends on the location of the cancer.  Some cancers, such as vocal cord cancers, are best biopsied using endoscopy or laryngoscopy.  Other cancers that are deep in the face or neck may require a needle biopsy using ultrasound or CT guidance to more accurately acquire a reliable tissue specimen.
  2. Imaging:
    Although CT, MRI, ultrasound, and other imaging modalities can’t provide exact tissue diagnoses, they assist in identifying anatomic extension of tumors.  Also, ultrasound and CT are used during needle biopsies to guide the pathologist or radiologist in acquiring a more accurate specimen for diagnosis.
  3. PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography):
    This is a specialized form of imaging that scans a portion of the body to identify highly active cells that can be suspicious for cancer.  The system utilizes a small sugar (glucose) molecule with a radiographic tracer that is injected into the body similar to IV contrast dye.  The cancer cells will use more glucose, and light up (enhance) on the imaging study.  This is an innovative way to scan the body for the spread of cancer before and after surgical, chemotherapy, and/or radiation treatment.

Treatment:

  1. Surgical:
    The option to treat specific cancers with surgical modalities depends on: the type of cancer, the location of the cancer, the stage of the cancer, as well as the patient’s overall health.  Surgery can be a simple removal, or be an extensive procedure with reconstruction using muscle, bone, or skin grafting.
  2. Chemotherapy:
    Chemotherapy involves the use of special oral or IV medication that is used to treat a specific cancer.  Chemotherapy can also be used in conjunction with radiation therapy to more effectively treat cancer cells.  Oncologists are doctors that specialize in the evaluation and treatment of cancer patients using chemotherapy medications.
  3. Radiation:
    Many cancer cells are radiosensitive, meaning they can be destroyed by specialized radiation that is target towards the cancer.  The decision to undergo radiation depends on the cancer type and stage at the time of diagnosis.  Radiation oncologists are doctors that specialize in the evaluation and treatment of cancer patients using radiation therapy.
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