Joe Howard was a good man. As a child, he would intermittently visit my home to chat with my mom. We knew him as “Uncle Buster.”
He’d been a chef in restaurants from Kentucky to New York City and had apparently lived a hard life. By the time I got to know him, he’d had his voice-box surgically removed and spoke with the aid of a vibrating device known as an electrolarynx.
Our ability to speak and express ourselves through our own voice is something easily taken for granted. Yet, this can be one of several side effects of the treatment for head and neck cancer.
Head and neck cancers are diagnosed in more than 65,000 Americans each year and result in over 15,000 deaths annually. Head and neck cancer is substantially more common in men than women though it can occur in both genders.
Cancers of the head and neck can form in the mouth, throat, voice-box, nose and sinuses and typically result from uncontrolled growth of cells in the mucous membranes known as squamous cells.
Like squamous cell cancers in other parts of the body, head and neck cancer has been associated with human papillomavirus (HPV). Other viral infections which may increase the risk of head and neck cancer include Epstein-Barr virus, hepatitis C virus and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Radiation of the head and neck – usually following treatment for another type of cancer – is also a risk factor.
Other risk factors include alcohol consumption and the use of tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, pipe smoking and smokeless tobacco, including chewing tobacco. The impact of alcohol and tobacco use on the risk for head and neck cancer cannot be overstated, and both also increase the risk for other cancers and health conditions, including heart disease.
Symptoms of head and neck cancer vary but can include a red or white patch inside the mouth, a growth or swelling of the jaw, painful swallowing, ringing in the ears or hearing loss, difficulty breathing or speaking, chronic sinus infection, problems with dentures, and swelling, numbness, or paralysis of muscles in the face.
Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on the location and stage of the disease but can include surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy or a combination of these treatments. Because of the impact of both the disease and the potential impacts of treatment, rehabilitation such as physical therapy, speech therapy and dietary counseling are often part of the treatment plan.
Head and neck cancer can have a significant impact on quality of life, and there are support resources available locally. Patients and caregivers at any stage – from diagnosis, to treatment, to life after cancer – can find support, encouragement and information with our incredible community of survivors.
Gatherings are the second Thursday of every month, 9:30 a.m. at Summit Church in Durango. More information is available by contacting Katy Kopec at (806) 786-8849 or Toni Abbey at (970) 403-3711.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark, a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics, works for the Indian Health Service.