Since early detection is the most effective key to getting proper head and neck cancer treatments, experts often advise visiting your doctor as soon as any of the symptoms appear.
First and foremost, the doctor would conduct a physical exam on the basis of your symptoms and risk factors to evaluate the condition. If the doctor finds anything amiss, they may go for further tests, such as an endoscopy, CT of the sinuses, dental core beam CT, chest imaging, etc.
There are multiple tests recommended for head and neck cancer diagnosis, but not all the tests are applicable to every patient. The doctor considers different factors when selecting a particular diagnostic test. These factors include the patient's age and complete health overview, signs and symptoms, the type of head and neck cancer suspected, and the result of any medical tests conducted earlier.
Here are 11 head cancer diagnosis tests recommended for a conclusive diagnosis of head and neck cancer and treatment planning:
Depending on the patient's symptoms, the doctor may examine the patient's throat, mouth, neck, ears, and eyes for any abnormalities. Doctors use a tongue depressor to get a clear view of the mouth's inside. They may also feel the insides of the mouth with a gloved finger.
Also, the doctor may try to feel for any lumps on the patient's gums, cheeks, neck, and lips. In areas where it may be difficult for the doctor to check physically, they may suggest an endoscopy or may also remove a tissue sample for biopsy.
During an endoscopy, the doctor uses a thin, flexible tube with a light and camera at the end. This tool is called an endoscope and is used for examining the insides of the nose and throat area. During this examination, the doctor is able to look for any abnormal changes, growths, blockages, or any other kind of issue for a detailed head and neck cancer diagnosis.
During the procedure, the patient is sedated, and the doctor gently inserts the tube into the patient's body. Also, the endoscopy examination gets different names as per the body part that is examined. For example, endoscopy treatment done to view the larynx is known as laryngoscopy; nasopharyngoscopy is done to view the nasopharynx; and pharyngoscopy is done to examine the pharynx.
Imaging tests are considered one of the best diagnostic methods for detecting the spread and presence of cancerous cells. These head and neck cancer imaging tests help the doctors by generating detailed pictures of the affected area.
The different imaging tests conducted for head and neck cancer detection include X-rays of the head and neck, PET scans, CT scans, and MRIs, or a Panorex. The Panorex is an advanced X-ray that helps doctors obtain detailed images of the upper and lower parts of the jaw, including the sinuses.
Biomarker testing is the process of seeking proteins, genes, and other tumor markers that provide detailed information about factors that are unique to head and neck cancer. Every carcinoma has a unique pattern of biomarkers, and biomarker testing of the tumor helps the doctor design a relevant treatment for every patient.
A panoramic radiograph is a two-dimensional dental X-ray of the upper and lower parts of the jawbone. The said X-ray is designed to capture the different parts of the mouth, such as teeth, the lower and upper parts of the jaw, and the surrounding tissues. The particular X-Ray is used mainly for detecting oral cancers.
An ultrasound makes use of sound waves to create a detailed image or picture of the human body's internal organs. The doctor may use the ultrasound to examine the salivary glands, lymph glands present in the neck, and thyroid.
Computed tomography, or CT or CAT scan, is an imaging test that makes use of X-Rays to get images, pictures, or scans of the insides of the body from different angles. The CT scans are used to detect any kind of abnormality or tumor in the head and neck area. These scans also help the doctor determine the tumor's size.
Another diagnostic test conducted for head and neck carcinoma is a bone scan. This bone scan uses a radioactive tracer to look inside the bones. However, the amount of radiation used is too low to be harmful. In the image, the healthy bone appears to be light in color, while the cancerous parts stand out. This bone test is conducted to check whether the head and neck carcinoma has spread to the bones.
PET, or positron emission tomography, is another imaging test that is often combined with CT scans to get a clear picture of the tissues and internal organs. The PET scan is conducted by injecting a small amount of radioactive sugar molecules into the patient's body.
These radioactive sugar molecules get absorbed in the cells that use maximum energy, and cancerous cells use energy actively.
Blood tests are conducted by doctors to get an idea of the patient's complete health. A complete blood count helps doctors assess the patient's immunity and other health aspects before designing the treatment for head and neck cancer.
A biopsy is conducted by the doctor to make the cancer diagnosis on the basis of a needle aspiration of a particular tumor. A biopsy is a test that involves the removal of tissues from the suspected area and their examination under the microscope. Biopsies are also performed in multiple ways:
Incisional biopsy involves making a minor cut in the area with abnormal tissues and removing a small piece from the area. The sample is then sent for analysis at the laboratory.
A fine needle aspiration is a biopsy test that involves inserting a needle into the lump or mass in the head or neck area and collecting the sample for analysis.
Head cancer treatment involves options such as radiation therapy for destroying the cancerous cells, targeted therapy, chemotherapy using drugs, and surgery for removing the cancer cells. The treatment modality is selected depending on the size, location, and type of head and neck cancer.
The main aim of surgery is to remove the tumor completely while making efforts to preserve the functions of the affected area. During the surgery, the doctor removes the tumor and a small portion of the healthy tissues that surround it. These healthy tissues are then checked by the pathologist to ensure that the entire cancerous cell population is removed.
The different surgeries conducted for head and neck cancer treatments include robotic head and neck surgery, laser surgery, cordectomy, vocal cord stripping, Laryngectomy, myocutaneous flap procedure, pharyngectomy, lymphadenectomy, tracheotomy, and reconstructive microsurgery.
As the name suggests, robotic surgery is a minimally invasive procedure that helps doctors reach difficult areas inside the mouth and throat with a scope. Robotic surgery for head and neck cancer has multiple benefits, namely reduced blood loss and pain, fewer treatment-related complications, shorter hospital stays, and faster recovery.
A laser surgery involves conducting an endoscopy with an endoscope with a high-grade laser attached at the end. Laser surgery is often performed to remove the tumor in the throat.
A cordectomy is a surgical procedure used to partly or entirely remove the vocal cords. This surgical method is used for treating glottic cancer, which is located on the surface tissues.
The vocal cord stripping surgery involves the removal of the outer layer of tissues of the vocal cords. This method is either used for conducting a biopsy or treating some early cancers of the vocal cords.
Laryngectomy is a surgical method used to partly or entirely remove the larynx, which is also known as the voice box.
During the surgical myocutanoeus flap procedure, the surgeon reconstructs the affected throat parts using skin and muscle from the nearby area.
Pharyngectomy is a surgical procedure that involves the removal of either a part or the whole of the throat with cancerous cells.
When the cancerous cells of the pharynx spread to the lymph nodes present in the neck, a surgical treatment is performed for the removal of the lymph nodes, and this is known as a lymphadenectomy.
A surgeon performs a tracheotomy to create an alternative path for breathing. This path is created through a hole or stoma in the windpipe or trachea.
Reconstructive microsurgery is a surgical procedure for reconstructing affected areas of the head and neck. Through this surgical procedure, the doctors are able to reconstruct the tongue, throat, or nose while using tissues from nearby healthy body parts.
A treatment method known as radiation therapy or radiotherapy involves directing high-grade energy beams of particles at the neck cancer. On reaching the tumor, the beams damage the DNA of the cancer cells, thereby damaging the cancerous cells in whole. There are different approaches to radiotherapy for head and neck cancer.
Head and neck cancer radiation therapy may be used as the main treatment course for pharyngeal and laryngeal cancers. In some cases, it may be used as an effective way to prevent the recurrence of head and neck cancer.
Different types of radiation therapy include Proton therapy, adaptive radiotherapy in head and neck cancer, intensity-modulated radiation therapy, image-guided intensity-modulated radiation therapy, chemoradiation, and brachytherapy.
The head and neck radiation recovery time is usually 4 weeks, when the patient starts feeling better. However, for some patients, the recovery time may be a little longer.
Chemotherapy is a treatment procedure that makes use of highly powerful drugs to attack cancerous cells in the head and neck area. These chemotherapy drugs are often given as head and neck cancer medications, along with radiation therapy or surgery, to improve the overall effectiveness of the treatment.
This combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy is termed as chemoradiation. In addition, oncologists also recommend neoadjuvant chemotherapy for head and neck cancer, adjuvant chemotherapy, and palliative chemotherapy.
Head and neck cancer targeted therapy is a treatment that remains focused on the genetic changes responsible for turning healthy cells into cancerous ones. During this treatment, the doctors first test for these particular genetic changes and then use specific ways to kill the cancerous cells or prevent them from growing.
EGFR inhibitors block the protein epidermal growth factor receptor, which is found on the surface of cells and is responsible for cell growth. The EGFR protein is one of the main reasons for cancerous cells growth and spreading.
Tumor-agnostic therapy uses drugs or substances that are used for treating head and neck cancer based on the carcinoma's molecular and genetic features. This therapy does not consider the cancer type or the location of its initiation.
Immunotherapy is a course of treatment that makes use of a person's own immune system to kill off cancerous cells. The different immunotherapy medications available for head and neck cancer treatment are Cetuximab (Erbitux®), Dostarlimab (Jemperli), Pembrolizumab (Keytruda®), and Nivolumab (Opdivo®).
Clinical trials involve studies conducted to test and judge the effectiveness of new cancer treatments and drugs. Multiple studies are being conducted at present to explore different head and neck cancer treatments. Those head and neck cancer patients who have exhausted all the conventional treatment options can consider clinical trials. During clinical trials, patients are given access to new drugs, new treatment combinations, and new treatment approaches that are not yet available to the general public.
Before considering opting for clinical trials, it is important to have a detailed discussion with the expert team.
The staging of head and neck cancer gives information about the extent of the cancer's spread and at what stage it is. This information is highly useful to doctors regarding how to treat neck cancer when it reaches a particular stage.
Stage 1, as the name suggests, is the very early stage of neck cancer. At this stage, the tumor is not bigger than two centimeters, and the carcinoma has not reached the lymph nodes.
During stage 2, the cancerous tumor is bigger than two centimeters but less than four centimeters. At this stage, the cancer has not reached the lymph nodes.
Stage 3 head and neck cancer refers to a cancer tumor that is larger than four centimeters and has spread to lymph nodes.
Stage 4 is the advanced stage of head and neck carcinoma. At this stage, the tumor may be of any size. However, the cancer has already spread to lymph nodes, nearby tissues of the head and neck, and distant organs such as the lungs.
Though radiotherapy for head and neck cancer is an effective line of treatment, it has its share of side effects too. Some of the common head and neck radiotherapy side effects include:
HCG has a perfect team of doctors and professionals who are well versed in diagnosing and treating head and neck cancer. The team includes surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, palstic and reconstructive surgeons, radiologists, pathologists, and expert nurses. This ensures that your line of treatment is well designed and that the success rates are quite high.
Head and neck carcinoma is a collection of cancers that originate in the squamous cells lining the mouth, throat, and nose. The best course of treatment for cancer is its early detection. Thus, it is often recommended to visit your doctor as soon as any of the symptoms appear.