Author: Andrew Creasey, Staff Reporter

The level of concern you should have for contracting cancer of the head and neck can be gauged by the answer to one simple question: Do you smoke?

If the answer is no, chances are your oral cavities and voice box, the places cancers most commonly occur, will be safe from the onerous growth that can cause death if not treated soon enough.

If the answer is yes, then you are 40 times more likely to contract head or neck cancer if you have been smoking for 10 years, and you should probably be aware of what to look for, said Dr. Richard DeVore, an otolaryngologist in Klamath Falls.

Signs of head and neck cancer include a sore or ulcer that doesn’t heal, unexplained bleeding of the throat and, most importantly, throat or tongue pain that persists beyond several weeks, DeVore said. Such pain could be caused by the cancer, which actually eats into the tissue and can cause significant pain when it starts munching on the local nerves.
Swallowing difficulties, hoarseness and lumps in the head and neck that don’t respond to antibiotics should also be examined, DeVore said.

At the onset of such symptoms, it is vital to share them with a physician, DeVore said. Caught early, the cure rate of many neck and head cancers is 100 percent and can be solved with a simple operation.

“The cure rates are slowly improving to some degree, but it’s a bad disease,” DeVore said. “If you wait to a stage four, you’re in trouble.”

For voice box cancer, for example, stage one and two have cure rates close to 100 percent. By stage four, it drops to 60 percent, DeVore said.

Treatment options for advanced stages of head and neck cancer used involve only one option — surgery that often left the patient mutilated and without pieces of their body, such as a voice box or jaw bone. Now, doctors have what’s called the organ preservation protocol, which can treat advanced stages of the disease with a combination of radiation and chemotherapy.

And new knowledge continues to pour in. The AIDS epidemic created a wealth of funding and research into tumor biology. The human genome project allowed doctors to identify the specific genes that caused or contributed to disease. But the translation of this wealth of knowledge to front line treatment options is slow, as doctors sift through the information to make the best treatment decisions, DeVore said.

The best decision a patient can make is still not to smoke or to quit smoking, DeVore said.

“It’s never too late to quit smoking, from a cancer standpoint,” DeVore said, mentioning that while cancer rates increase 40 times after ten years of smoking, they fall almost back to normal 10 years after quitting.

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