Cancer cells in the head or neck can sometimes travel to the lungs and grow there. When cancer cells do this, it’s called metastasis. To doctors, the cancer cells in the new place look just like the ones from the head or neck where it started.
Cancer is always named for the place where it starts. So when head or neck cancer spreads to the lung (or any other place), it’s still called head or neck cancer. It’s not called lung cancer unless it starts from cells in the lung.
There are many types of head and neck cancers. Your doctor can tell you more about the type you have. Here are some of the most common types and how to say them:
The most common type of cancer in the head and neck area is called carcinoma. These cancers start in the cells that line all parts of the nose, mouth, and throat.
There are many ways to treat head or neck cancer, but the main types of treatment are local or systemic. Surgery and radiation are used to treat only the cancer. They do not affect the rest of the body. This is called local treatment. Chemo and targeted treatment drugs go through the whole body. They can reach cancer cells anywhere in the body. They are called systemic treatment.
Doctors often use both local and systemic treatments for head and neck cancers. The treatment plan that’s best for you will depend on:
Some of these cancers are in places that are hard to operate on. Still, surgery may be used to take out the cancer and an edge of healthy tissue around it. In some cases, all or part of the tongue, throat, vocal box, wind pipe, or jaw bone may need to be removed. Surgery may also be used to take out lymph nodes in the neck that haven’t gotten better with other treatments. Surgery can also be used to help you do things that the cancer may have changed. For instance, if you can’t swallow because of the tumor, surgery may be done to put in a feeding tube.
Radiation uses high-energy rays (like x-rays) to kill cancer cells. Here are some ways this treatment may be used to treat head and neck cancers:
There are 2 main ways radiation can be given. It can be aimed at the cancer from a machine outside the body. This is called external beam radiation. Or, radioactive seeds can be put right into the body near the cancer. This is called brachytherapy.
Chemo is the short word for chemotherapy– the use of drugs to fight cancer. The drugs may be given into a vein or taken as pills. These drugs go into the blood and spread through the body. Chemo is given in cycles or rounds. Each round of treatment is followed by a break. Most of the time, 2 or more chemo drugs are given. Treatment often lasts for many months. Chemo is often given along with radiation.
There are some newer drug treatments for head and neck cancers. One example is called targeted therapy. This is not the same as chemo because these drugs affect mainly cancer cells and not normal cells in the body. They may work even if chemo doesn’t, or they may help chemo work better. They may cause fewer side effects. Another newer type of drug treatment is called immunotherapy. These drugs help your own immune system attack the cancer. These drugs tend to have fewer side effects, but when they do happen they can sometimes be serious.