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Head and Neck Cancer: Effect on Voice and Swallowing

If I have a head and neck cancer, will I lose my voice and ability to swallow?

Although Head and Neck cancer accounts for only a small percentage of newly diagnosed cancers, these cancers are often not detected until they are at an advanced stage. Cancer of the larynx (the "voice box") is the most common head and neck cancer in the U.S. and, if detected early, can be treated with laser surgery, voice sparing surgery, or radiation therapy. In these cases, a good chance of cure and preservation of the voice can be achieved. If the disease is more advanced, treatment options include total laryngectomy (complete removal of the "voice box") or, in some cases, a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy (chemoradiation). Preserving the voice in cases of more advance cancers is one of the research areas currently being pursued in the department. These include adaptation of surgical techniques used in Europe for larger tumors of the throat and only recently introduced into the U.S.

Similarly, surgical removal of advanced tongue tumors can have devastating consequences on speech and swallowing. When possible, patients are offered a technique called brachytherapy which allows a nonsurgical treatment of the tumor. When surgery is necessary, it is performed by a team of head and neck, maxillofacial and plastic surgeons working simultaneously to obtain the best possible functional and cosmetic outcome. This may involve transfer of tissue from the arm or leg to the head and neck region for reconstruction of the tongue, throat, or jaw bone. In some cases a new technique pioneered at the NYEEI allows the replacement of bone removed at the time of surgery with new growth of bone using a technique called "osteodistraction.

How can I find out if I am a candidate for a voice sparing surgery, chemoradiation or combined surgical procedures for head and neck cancer?

Your case can be presented and discussed at our tumor board conference if your treating otolaryngologist can forward results of all your diagnostic tests. This includes copies of X-rays, CAT or MRI scans, and photographs of the tumor at endoscopy. The recommendations of the tumor board will be transmitted to your treating physician.

I have a lump in my neck or inside my mouth/throat. How do I know whether it is malignant (a cancer) or benign?

Although head and neck cancers are rare in the U.S., people who smoke (cigarettes, cigars, or pipes), and people who chew tobacco are much more likely to develop a cancer of the mouth, throat or neck, than non-smokers. Smokers who consume alcohol are at even greater risk of developing head and neck cancers.

Most lumps and bumps in the head and neck are a result of an infection and are non-cancerous growths. These include growths in the salivary glands, the thyroid gland, and the other organs of the head and neck. The pathologist's and radiologist's familiarity with head and neck tumors helps the head and neck surgeon arrive at the correct diagnosis and timely treatment in the case of a malignant tumor. If you are concerned about a lump in your neck you should obtain a consultation with an otolaryngologist/head and neck surgeon.

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