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Alex Fulton

Alex Fulton has been working in the wellness field for more than 20 years. She has written extensively about integrative medicine, herbalism, supplements and other topics related to holistic health. Alex also focuses on issues related to women's health, from menstruation to menopause. She has collaborated with physicians, midwives and functional medicine practitioners to promote natural approaches to health care for women. She has a BA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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 Genomics, mutations, and treatment options for Head & Neck Cancer

Genomics, Mutations, and Treatment Options for Head & Neck Cancer

Studying genetic changes in cancer cells may be helpful in developing better treatments for head and neck cancer

Created With Support

Reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Grandis

Head and neck cancers account for about 4% of cancers in the U.S.

Head and neck cancers include cancers in the:

  • lips
  • mouth
  • voice box
  • throat

Risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

  • smoking or other tobacco use
  • drinking alcohol
  • human papillomavirus (HPV) infection

About 70% of oropharyngeal cancers, one type of head and neck cancer, are caused by HPV

(oropharynx = back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils)

Did you know? The HPV vaccine protects against the strains of HPV that cause oropharyngeal cancer.

Head and neck cancer and genetics

  • All cancers begin when genes inside a cell mutate or change.
  • Cancer usually comes from multiple mutations over a lifetime, not a single one.
  • Researchers are studying genetic changes in cancer cells. This study is called cancer genomics.
  • The study of head and neck cancer genomics is geared toward finding more effective treatments.

mutation = when genes inside a cell change

cancer genomics = comparing the DNA of cancer cells to normal cells

New approaches to treatment

Thanks to genomics, innovative treatments for head and neck cancer are being developed. These include:

  • Precision medicine, the use of targeted therapies for a person’s specific head and neck cancer
  • Immunotherapy, treatments that activate the immune system to attack head and neck cancer cells

immunotherapy = activating the immune system to attack cancer cells

Early detection is key to surviving head and neck cancer.

Look for:

  • a mouth sore that won’t heal
  • a lump in the neck, jaw or mouth
  • pain or weakness in the face
  • neck pain
  • difficulty moving the jaw
  • difficulty swallowing
  • speech problems
  • ear pain or hearing loss
  • trouble breathing
  • a sore throat that doesn’t go away
  • white or red patches in the mouth or throat
  • weight loss

This resource was created with support from Merck.

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