Cancers of the head and neck are oftentimes more curable and receptive to treatments compared to other types of cancer in different parts of the body. However, the efficiency of treatment may still rely on how early cancer has been detected. Each cancer treatment has a primary goal of killing the cancer cells, but they also may affect the healthy cells and organs nearest to their targets, so doctors are carefully considering the treatments they would give to their patients. One of the treatments used by well-known oncologists is immunotherapy for head and neck cancer. Let us discuss the different head and neck cancers, treatment options used to fight these cancers, what immunotherapy is, and the pros and cons of immunotherapy for head and neck cancer.
Head and neck cancer: The types
There are different types of head and neck cancers identified by oncologists and they all depend on what part or organ it affects. Let us group them into five main types, focusing on the cancers that affect the gullet, larynx, pharynx, nose, sinuses, and mouth. We will be excluding those that target organs near the head and neck (brain, eye, thyroid, esophageal, sarcoma, parathyroid cancers) because their treatment and nature of the disease are much different from most head and neck cancers.
- Cancer of the larynx (voice box)
- Cancers of the nasal cavity and sinuses
- Nasopharyngeal cancer
- Cancer of the mouth (mouth and tongue) and oropharynx
- Salivary gland cancer
These cancers can be a type of squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma affects the tissue layer of an organ while an adenocarcinoma affects the gland itself.
Head and neck cancer treatment
There are many treatment options available to help fight head and neck cancers. To choose which options can be used for a particular patient, doctors carefully plan out how these therapies will address a specific type of cancer as well as affect the patient as a whole because we all know that cancer treatments can also greatly affect a person’s overall quality of life.
Surgery. This is intended to surgically remove the cancer tumor on a part of an organ or the whole. It can also affect the neighboring tissues as a precautionary measure, just to make sure that all or most of the cancer cells are effectively removed or excised. After all the treatment following surgical excision and removal of cancer tumors or cysts, doctors and patients may also consider undergoing reconstructive surgery to mend and or correct the look or appearance of an affected part of the head or neck. Reconstructive surgery may be done for the nose and the facial features so that the patient may recover self-confidence together with their overall cancer remission.
Radiation therapy. This treatment regimen uses x-rays to kill the cancer cells at a specific target zone. It can be used as a sole treatment option for head and neck cancers, but it can also complement the effects of surgery.
Chemotherapy. Compared to radiation and surgery treatments, chemotherapy affects the whole body as it is a systemic therapy using medications that are presented to the body through your bloodstream or through pills. This therapy prevents the cancer cells to grow, multiply, and spread to other organs and body parts. This may be the treatment option that would cause more side effects as the effects will be distributed all over the body.
Immunotherapy. Also called biologic therapy, this treatment uses medications that help the body fight the cancer cells. This type of treatment regimen may not be widely used yet as of the moment, but scientists and doctors alike mention that the use of this treatment in conjunction with surgery and radiation may be necessary to successfully eradicate cancer. Let us discuss more about this treatment, its effects, benefits, and side effects on patients with head and neck cancer.
Immunotherapy for head and neck cancer
This type of cancer treatment has been one of the latest discoveries that were developed to help combat this lethal disease. Some types of immunotherapy drugs are still in the process of clinical trials before officially offering it to the public. However, some drugs, like pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and nivolumab (Opdivo) are 2 immunotherapy drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of people with recurrent or metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. There are different types of immunotherapy for head and neck cancer, and for other cancer types basically.
Immune checkpoint inhibitors work by bypassing the natural controllers of our immune bodies. This, in turn, makes the immune cells stronger and its effect more lethal for cancer cells.
T-cell transfer therapy enhances the strength of the T-cells in the body so they can better fight cancer. T-cells from the cancer tumor are recovered and prepared in a specialized laboratory, then reintroduced to the body to help in fighting a specific cancer.
Monoclonal antibodies like cetuximab (Erbitux) are specialized immune system proteins that attach to the cancer cells so that the body can better detect and kill them.
Benefits of immunotherapy for head and neck cancer
It can work better compared to radiation or chemotherapy. It can also be less hazardous as it only increases the potential strength of the immune system and does not affect the other neighboring tissues or organs.
It helps in conjunction with other cancer regimens. It complements the effects of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
It has fewer side effects. Because it controls the immune cells and not other cells in the body, lesser side effects and adverse reactions may be reported.
Cancer may be confined and may be less likely to return. Because your body is healthier and your immune system is stronger, growth and spread of the cancer cells may be prevented.
Risks of immunotherapy for head and neck cancer
Like any other treatment regimes for cancer, immunotherapy can also pose some mild to serious side effects.
You may get irritation when administering the drug. The insertion site (IV) may itch, redden, or ache because of the medication.
Your body may find it difficult during the first treatment session. Because your body is still adjusting to the change, you may feel symptoms of flu, fatigue, headache, diarrhea, and others. However, those who managed to continue with the treatment reported alleviation of the symptoms as the treatment progressed.
It is a scheduled regimen. It is not a one-time deal. Sometimes, the sessions may be more than the chemotherapy sessions or radiation sessions you may be recommended to have.
We hope that through this article, you gained a different perspective on how to treat cancers, particularly using immunotherapy for head and neck cancer. Sometimes, immunotherapy may not be the right treatment regimen that would help you fight your specific cancer, so it is still best to consult your doctor so they can help you decide and plan your treatment.