Head and Neck Cancer Unit
The Head and Neck Cancer Unit of the IOB Oncological Institute treats patients who have been diagnosed with tumours that affect the upper tract of their digestive and respiratory system. Among them, those affecting the larynx and the inner part of the oral cavity stand out, because of their frequency.
Patients who come to the unit have usually been previously diagnosed, but they can also be people who have suspected head and neck cancer and require a first diagnosis. Likewise, like other IOB units, the Head and Neck Cancer Unit offers a second opinion service to patients who are treated by oncologists from other centres.
Patients treated at the Head and Neck Cancer Unit are treated by a multidisciplinary team made up of oncologists, radiotherapists, radiologists, surgeons, pathologists and specialised cancer nursing staff. Likewise, the IOB offers psychological or psychiatric care to patients who need it and advice from nutrition specialists.
This multidisciplinary team makes it easier for patients to undergo all the tests and receive all the treatments they need in a coordinated way in the same place and in as little time as possible, without the need to travel and visit different specialists separately. The team is led by the oncologist Dr. Enriqueta Felip, and includes Dr. Álex Martínez Martí, Dr. Pedro Pérez-Segura and Dr. Ricardo Hitt.
The earlier the detection of head and neck cancer, the higher the likelihood of being able to treat it successfully and with minimal sequelae for the patient. Most head and neck cancers produce symptoms in their early stages. Since these symptoms may be due to causes other than cancer, many patients do not pay much attention to them. But a timely consultation with an otolaryngologist is key for achieving an early detection so that the recovery probability is as high as possible.
In particular, it is advisable to consult a specialist urgently if one or more of the following symptoms occur:
• Swollen lymph node in the neck that persists for more than two weeks and has no apparent cause, since many head and neck cancers invade these lymph nodes before spreading to other organs.
• Change of voice that persists for more than two weeks and has no apparent cause, since it could be the first symptom of laryngeal cancer.
• Inflammation or sore inside the mouth that persists for more than ten days, even if it does not cause discomfort.
• Appearance of blood in saliva or sputum for several days in a row.
• Discomfort when eating solid foods.
• Persistent pain in the ear, especially when swallowing, as it could be a symptom of an infection or a tumour in the throat.
Head and neck cancer can affect anyone, so these recommendations for early detection are applicable to the entire population. But it is advisable for smokers and ex-smokers to be more cautious, and also those who drink alcohol regularly, since tobacco and alcohol are the two main risk factors of this type of tumour.
A head and neck cancer diagnosis, which is given in most cases by an otolaryngologist, is usually based on a visual examination of the affected area and a biopsy to remove a sample of tissue. The analysis of the tissue in the laboratory allows confirming or definitively ruling out a cancer diagnosis.
In cases where the diagnosis is confirmed, a detailed study of the cells in the laboratory allows us to specify the type of cancer in question in order to decide the most appropriate treatment for each patient. A comprehensive blood test, including tumour markers, and an imaging study, will provide additional information to assess whether the cancer is located in its place of origin or has spread to other organs.
The IOB rapid diagnostic circuit has made it possible to reduce the average time between the first consultation of a patient newly diagnosed with head and neck, or with the suspicion of having head and neck cancer, and the start of treatment, to a period of less than one week.
The treatment for head and neck cancer depends on its location and the extent to which the disease has spread at the time of making the diagnosis. A multidisciplinary team made up of specialists in medical oncology, radiotherapy oncology, surgery and otolaryngology decide the treatment strategy individually for each patient. Individualising the treatment is essential for achieving the maximum therapeutic efficacy and at the same time preserving the maximum patient quality. The treatment decision should consider, for example, the need to preserve the patient’s larynx whenever possible.
The initial treatment is usually based on surgery, radiotherapy or a combination of both. These treatment options act on cancer locally and have the objective of eliminating the tumour or reducing its size. Chemotherapy, which removes cancer cells throughout the body, is often used as an additional treatment.
Once the treatment is finished, the patient’s evolution is strictly monitored, especially during the first three years. Medical examinations entail a comprehensive blood test with tumour markers every three months and imaging tests every six months.