Well over 1,000 people in Ireland are diagnosed each year with cancers of the head and neck, with almost three-quarters of cases being attributed to smoking and alcohol. Yet this pernicious form of cancer very often goes under-reported, or sufficient heed isn't paid to the warning signs that, if caught early, may be the difference between life and death.
This is why July 27th will mark the third World Head & Neck Cancer day, taking place across 53 countries. The 2017 National Cancer Strategy highlights the importance of prevention, detection and diagnosis, and education and awareness is key for early recognition of the disease.
According to James Paul O'Neill, Prof of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery in Beaumont Hospital, Dublin and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, there can be many different types of cancers within the head and neck, each with their own tissue characteristics and biological behaviour.
“Cancers may develop in several areas of this region, including the mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), glandular tissue (thyroid), salivary tissue (parotid gland), lymphatic tissue, nose, sinuses and skin. Patients have a large variety of symptoms and signs according to the subsite of the disease,” says O’Neill.
He says surgery incorporates many different techniques and skills, as the region has essential functional roles, such as talking, breathing, smelling, hearing, chewing and swallowing.
“We are now in the age of highly-specialised technological innovations. There is a drive towards minimally invasive surgery because we can perform the same surgery except with reduced morbidity to surrounding structures.
“Chemotherapy overall offers little in head and neck oncology, with an overall survival difference of approximately 6.5 per cent, but a hike in morbidity of nearly 50 per cent.
“Overall, some head and neck cancers have an excellent prognosis, but unfortunately two-thirds of all our patients present with advanced disease at the time of diagnosis. If these patients fail our first line of therapy, their prognosis is often very challenging. Head and neck cancers often advance quickly and given the anatomical complexity of the region, frequently impinge on or directly invade the patient’s airway,” says O’Neill.
Following a diagnosis of Laryngeal cancer in 2014, Sligoman Donal Connor had his larynx removed in Beaumont Hospital, under the care of Prof O'Neill and plastic surgeon Barry O'Sullivan. Despite his diagnosis, Connor had never smoked, and remained fit and active all his life.
“This was life-changing surgery, but it gave me a chance to have a life and get rid of this tumour, which was making me hoarse and very unwell,” says Connor. “I now have a little prosthesis, or speaking valve, in my neck, which helps to project my voice. I have to put my finger in the hole in my neck, which is called a stoma, every time I want to speak, which can be very tiring. Conversation for me is the biggest challenge, as I cannot raise my voice if I need to call someone, and I cannot speak over the radio, television or in a crowded situation,” says Connor.
“I now breathe through the stoma, which must be cleaned and cared for on a daily basis, and so it’s much easier for me to get chest infections. I understand my neck looks different and people stare at it, but by now I’m used to this type of attention.”
Connor says his sense of smell has been impacted hugely, while going for a swim is no longer an option either. “If water enters my stoma it would flood my lungs. I have to take great care in the shower. My stoma needs to be covered at all times around water. I am very lucky I can eat and drink most things, but I have to relax after my meals or my food will repeat on me. I cannot speak during mealtimes as I need to focus on swallowing.
“Regardless of all these negatives, I am thankful to God every day to be cancer free and given this second chance. I could go around all day depressed, and some days I do, but I try my best to make the most out of the life I have been left with,” says Connor.
“I know I had different treatments and surgeries that weren’t successful for me, but what didn’t work for me may be very successful for other cancer patients, as everyone’s cancer is different. I know now that anyone who is hoarse for more than six weeks should have it investigated. Please go to your GP, or further if needs be, and have it checked out. It may be nothing to worry about, but if it is detected early, its half the battle.”