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An Introduction to Head & Neck Cancer

This was originally published by Cancer.net on 8/20/18 here.


Dr. Ezra Cohen explains how head and neck cancer is categorized, current treatment options, and the latest research developments in this introductory patient education video.


Transcript:

Cancer.Net®: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®

Head and Neck Cancer: An Introduction

What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Ezra E. W. Cohen, MD, FRCP, Member, American Society of Clinical Oncology:

When we think about head and neck cancer, we are really talking about diseases or cancers that occur essentially above the clavicles, but not including the brain. Brain cancers are really a different entity. So these are cancers that start in the mouth or the throat. Often we see patients with cancers that originated in the thyroid gland or the salivary glands.

Essentially, that part of the body that is responsible for speech and swallowing, communication. And most of those cancers start on the surface, what we call the mucosa of those areas, the lining of the mouth or the throat or the tongue.

Types of Head and Neck Cancer

Dr. Cohen:

The primary types of head and neck cancer we really put into, I think, three major categories and they are based on their origin in terms of the tissue. So the main type, and I would say this accounts for 90 percent of the cancers that we see, we call squamous cell carcinomas. Those are cancers that start in the lining of what we call the upper air digestive track, so the mouth, the throat, the upper esophagus, the voice box or larynx, the upper trachea.  Those are all lined by a mucosal surface that when there is a cancer from it, we call those squamous cell carcinomas.

Then the second most common are thyroid cancers, they come from the thyroid gland. Those fall into a couple of categories, either medullary thyroid cancer or what in broad terms what we call differentiated thyroid cancer. And then the third category that we see most often are cancers that start from the salivary glands or salivary gland cancer.

Potential for Cure

Dr. Cohen:

When we think about a head and neck cancer diagnosis and when a patient gets a diagnosis of head and neck cancer, one of the things that they need to begin to think about are what their potential for cure is and potential for organ preservation.

Let me expand on both of those. In terms of this disease, the majority of patients that we see present with what we call local regional disease. And what we mean by that is that they have a tumor that often has spread to lymph nodes, but has not spread widely. So no metastases to other organs like the lungs or the bones or the liver and what we are really talking about is disease that is confined to the area of the head and neck.

And that’s important because those patients we would consider for curative intent therapy. We are going to try to cure that disease. And that becomes obviously incredibly important to both the patient and the physician. And the first thing that we think about when we see a patient with head and neck cancer is, is this a patient that can be cured of their disease.

If they are, that obviously takes us down a road of what we can do to cure that patient. And if they are not, that takes us down a completely different therapeutic avenue. Then we begin to think about well, as you can imagine, because the organs of the head and neck are so critical to day to day interaction, to really what defines us as human beings – our ability to talk to each other, our ability to have a meal, to eat normally, our facial expressions.  So much of what we do as people, as humans happens above the clavicles.

And so functional preservation becomes so important in patients with head and neck cancer, especially ones that we are going to try to cure. So the next question that we ask is how can we cure this patient and return them to normal function. And that is exactly the questions that patients should be asking their physicians. Do I have, can I be cured of this and if I can be cured of this, how can I maintain my normal activity once I am done with therapy?

And then we need to think about what are the other medical professionals that are going to be important in this person’s care. So because many patients have, will get radiation to the mouth or the oral cavity is going to be included in the radiation field, dentists and dental professionals become incredibly important to the ongoing care.

You can imagine that as we, as patients go through therapy they are going to have trouble swallowing. So nutrition and speech and swallow therapists become incredibly important.

Treatment Options

Dr. Cohen:

Going back to the idea that many of our patients will present with local regional disease, the main treatment option really focuses on curing these patients. And when we talk about curative intent therapy, we are really talking about three major modalities – surgery, radiation therapy and medical oncology or chemotherapy.

And what we’ve done really for the last couple of decades is learned how to integrate those three modalities to produce the best outcomes possible. For some patients it is going to be surgery upfront, possibly followed by radiation or chemotherapy and radiation. For other patients, we want to, and for many patients, we want to think about a non-surgical approach in an attempt to preserve function and preserve the organ.

And then lastly, I do believe it’s very important to ask about clinical trials. Because not only is this the way that we move the field forward, but honestly, clinical trials offer novel therapies to patients, new approaches to patients that very often prove to be the next standard of care, especially now with the excitement around immunotherapy. So I think it is very important to ask what clinical trials are available to me for the disease that I have.

Beyond that, I think the important things to ask are what should my caregivers be thinking about, what support team do I need to have in place. And it is good to think about that proactively and get that in place. How much help will I need as I go through this treatment and who is going to be available to supply that help.

Latest Research Developments

Dr. Cohen:

When we think about where the research is going and the most recent research advances in head and neck cancer, I really like to group them into two categories. The first is what we are learning about the cancer and our better understanding of really the biology of this disease. And the second falls into what are the new therapies, what treatments are coming online or about to come online that we can take advantage of to improve outcomes for patients.

But we are learning that clearly there are two distinct types of squamous cell carcinoma, the head and neck. One is related to a virus called human papilloma virus or HPV, the same virus that causes cervical cancer and some other cancers. And we are understanding that HPV related head and neck cancer behaves a lot differently than non-HPV related head and neck cancer.

And what I mean by that is the patients tend to be younger, they are often non-smokers and non-drinkers. And that is a real, that is a very important thing to point out. Because we are learning as practioners is that patients don’t need to smoke to be at risk for head and neck cancer. And in a non-smoker, we need to be still concerned if somebody begins to complain of symptoms around the head and neck area, pain, a lump in the neck. We need to be very concerned and begin to think about is this possibly a viral related cancer, even in a non-smoker and patients, of course, should be aware of that as well.

So HPV positive head and neck cancer behaves differently. And then HPV negative cancer, which is often related to tobacco exposure, occurs in patients who are a little bit older. It has a different presentation in terms of where it occurs, it often occurs in the voice box or the oral cavity. And again, it is often associated with, especially cigarette smoking.

We have also begun to understand that there are mutations and alterations that we can target specifically. So for instance, there are patients who have mutations in certain pathways or in certain genes that now we have drugs that specifically target those genes.

We have also begun to understand that immunotherapy is going to play an incredibly important role in this disease for both HPV positive and non-HPV related head and neck cancer. And that we are seeing some incredibly exciting data with the first wave of immunotherapy drugs in this disease. In fact, now we have randomized data of an immunotherapy drug versus standard of care in patients that are current in metastatic disease that are showing a dramatic improvement for immunotherapy.

And truly, this is just the first step, the first drug that has shown this type of efficacy. We are going to see many, many more in the next few months and an explosion, really, in the next few years for immunotherapy in head and neck cancer.

Where to Get More Information

Dr. Cohen:

For head and neck cancer, there’s some especially relevant websites that would be worth looking into. Cancer.Net is a site designed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology specifically for patients to address patient questions, patient needs, caregiver questions and needs. And it’s really geared towards the patient. So Cancer.Net would be certainly one of those.


[Closing and Credits]

Cancer.Net®: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®

ASCO’s patient education programs are supported by Conquer Cancer Foundation of the American Society of Clinical OncologyConquerCancerFoundation.org 

Diana’s Story: How Connecting with Another Head and Neck Cancer Patient Saved My Life

Diana’s Story: How Connecting with Another Head and Neck Cancer Patient Saved My Life from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

After Diana’s cancer diagnosis, she was told that she had only months to live. But, after meeting fellow head and neck cancer patient Sajjad Iqbal online, Diana’s path changed dramatically and she is now cancer-free. Hear their inspiring story about the power of connecting with other patients.


Transcript:

Sajjad:                        

My name is Sajjad Iqbal. I am a physician and also a cancer patient. I have the honor of serving on the board of Patient Empowerment Network.

Diana:                         

I’m Diana Craig from Auckland, New Zealand.

Sajjad:                        

I was diagnosed with a gland cancer, which is a salivary gland, on the left side of the face. The actual histology was a salivary duct carcinoma. It was diagnosed in February of 2002.

Diana:                         

In January of 2018. I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma HPV 16 on my tonsil and soft palate.

Sajjad:                        

I do a lot of counseling for the cancer patients and mentoring and advocating and all that. And as a part of that, I have joined a head and neck cancer support group, which is based in New Zealand. It’s on Facebook. And there are some great people there who advise together cancer patients. Diana posted a cry for help back in May of this year, May of 2019, where she was just given the news that her cancer had recurred in her lungs and near her trachea. And her oncologist gave her a very grim prognosis and he thought that the medication had a very small chance of success.  

And he told Diana she had a few months to two years to live. Diana was devastated. She posted on that Facebook group, and I reached out to her to introduce myself, to tell her how I have managed my own cancer, and I told her that I could try to help her if she would be willing to share the information with me.

Diana:                         

Initially, I hadn’t heard of him before.

And I felt I needed to do some research, and I was told by everybody what a good guy he is, and to absolutely go down that road. So, I happily gave my information and certainly after the first conversation or interaction with him, I knew I was in good hands. Very much so. It was, to me, I used to call him my angel, my guardian angel, because I really felt safe and informed and encouraged. And his mantrais hope and determination and that is such a valid mantra when you go through cancer.

And it’s something that I said to myself oftentimes because it was so poignant, and it’s everything that you have to be and do to empower yourself and to be proactive, to find the best possible outcome for yourself.

Sajjad:                        

You know, as you know, I have written a book about my amazing cancer journey. The book is called Swimming Upstream. And a lot of other people have found it very inspirational. So, my story was not a whole lot different from Diana in this respect: that I was given a very grim prognosis back in 2002.

I was told that I had less than 30% chance of surviving for two years and I was also told that there was no five-year survivors with this cancer. And I made it my goal to beat the odds. And I used to say that in that case, I’ll be among the 30% and if no one has survived five years, well, I’ll be the first one. So, the hope and determination that Diana just mentioned, that’s my motto. Hope and determination. And I tried to instill that in Diana.

Diana: 

It certainly empowered me or put me in the right direction as to, I mean, I like to be moving, I like to be able to fight the fight if I know where to fight to. And also, know what questions to ask. I mean, when you’re in that situation, you are told how it is. And you don’t know what you don’t know. And unless you’ve been informed by somebody else or do the research yourself, and even then, that’s pretty dubious, because you stumble across information that you don’t want to know, and a lot of it’s scare tactics. But with his knowledge, with his background, with his first-hand experience of going through what we have gone through, gave me the confidence to do everything that he said.

Sajjad:                        

And I always recommend to my friends, other patients, that going to your oncologist about the cancer treatment is so much different than going to a doctor for your blood pressure or your bronchitis or so on.

This is an area where we need to be fully prepared. We need to go in and have a dialogue with our doctors who are treating our cancer and this is a matter of life and death. Literally, life and death. So, there is no room for just sitting there passively and just listening to everything and agreeing to everything. We must ask a lot of questions to our doctor. They should be, not only willing to answer our questions, but they should be welcoming our questions. So, if a doctor does not welcome your questions, does not give you plenty of time, does not explain everything that he or she wants to do, then that’s not the right doctor for you. And you’ve got to move on, and quickly.

Diana:                         

Where would I be without meeting Sajjad? I would have no hair at this point. I would be in the middle of chemo and probably K-truda. I don’t believe that I would have such a radical improvement so quickly. Because mine had gone after three infusions, which is nine weeks. So, I floundered the first time because I felt like I needed the help and I couldn’t get any. And the last time, I felt so much more in control, and anybody would think I’m a control freak. And let me tell you, I’m not. At all.

And also, being on my own, as well, I didn’t have a partner there to talk to. It was heaven-sent. And I said to him, “If I come out okay, I’m going to come and see you.” And here I am. Coming to see you. Because it meant so much to me. It really meant so much to me. It really did.

Sajjad:

Yes, it did.

The medical science is moving at an astonishing pace to find new medicine, new modalities, to treat cancer. We cannot be  – the patient must not get bogged down in the statistics of, oh you have this percent chance of survival, or this percent chance of death. Because those numbers don’t mean anything anymore. They’re old numbers. And to fight the cancer, we need our immune system to be involved in the fight.

If we get depressed, if we lose all the hope, the immune system shuts itself down, and that helps the cancer. So, number one thing is to always have hope. Always remain optimistic. And number two is determination. You determine that you are going to fight this and you are going to survive. And then, having those two tools at your disposal, become the empowered patient. Learn as much as you can about your cancer. Talk to other people, go to the support groups. And, again, let me plug Patient Empowerment Network. Go to our website, learn about the cancer. Then go to your doctor and question them and find out how you can improve your treatment. And that’s the way you fight cancer.