The term “head and neck cancer” does not refer to a single type of malignant tumour but rather to a range of different cancers which happen to arise in the tissues of the head and neck. The most important of these are cancers of the mouth, throat and sinuses, cancers of the salivary glands and secondary cancers which have spread to involve the lymph glands of the neck from other sites. These tumours can affect speaking, chewing and swallowing, all vitally important functions that we take for granted.
Patients with head and neck cancer often need more than one form of treatment – surgery followed by radiotherapy or combined radiotherapy and chemotherapy. These patients also need skilled nursing, dental care, nutritional support and rehabilitation. Clearly, no one individual can provide all the necessary treatment and the best care can only be given by a highly trained and dedicated team.
Cancer Council statistics indicate that there are about 1,000 new cases of head and neck cancers in NSW each year but this number does not include the many patients with previously treated head and neck cancers who develop recurrence of their disease. A further 2,000 patients develop benign (non-cancerous) lumps and conditions involving the head and neck region and many of these require complex surgical treatment, similar to patients with cancer.
The Department of Head and Neck Surgery at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse has a national and international reputation for excellence. Over 450 new patients (200 with cancer) are seen annually and the computerized database of the Department is the largest in Australasia. The department continues this work by providing the best and most up-to-date treatment available and also takes a leadership role in coordinating data collection among other head and neck cancer centres in NSW. This helps us to analyse current results and to develop new treatments. The department also focuses on education and research in order to improve our understanding of these cancers and – ultimately – find a cure.