If you or a loved one has received a diagnosis of head or neck cancer, you want the best cancer care possible from a team of specialists close to home. At University of Missouri Health Care, our doctors provide patients the most advanced and safest procedures for head and neck cancer treatment.​

Head and neck cancers occur in the head and neck area and can include tumors located in the larynx and pharynx, nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses, mouth, salivary glands, thyroid and parathyroid glands and skin on the head and neck. Our team of specialists have the resources to care for you through all stages of cancer treatment – detection and diagnosis, treatment and long-term follow-up care – so you receive the best care possible.

Causes of head and neck cancer

Multiple lifestyle factors can increase the risk of head and neck cancer including alcohol and tobacco use. A common sexually transmitted virus, human papillomavirus (HPV), is also responsible for multiple head and neck cancers. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light through artificial tanning or is associated with increased risk of lip cancer, as well as head and neck skin cancers. Some occupational exposures – those associated with the construction, textile, ceramic, logging and food processing industries – can also increase the risk of cancer in the nose and throat.

To reduce your risk of head and neck cancer, it's important to reduce or eliminate your alcohol or tobacco use, and use sunscreen. We offer a free tobacco cessation program.

Some head and neck cancers occur due to other cancer treatment, such as radiation treatment. An infection known as Epstein-Barr virus can also lead to cancer in the postnasal and throat areas.

Symptoms of head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer symptoms might be noticeable in multiple ways. You might feel a neck lump or neck swelling have trouble speaking or breathing, or feel persistent pain in your mouth, throat or nose. If you notice any possible symptoms, talk with your doctor about your concerns.

Head and neck cancer treatment

At MU Health Care, your cancer care team includes specially trained doctors including head and neck surgeons, medical oncologists, endocrinologists, pathologists, and radiation oncologists. Your team will also include speech pathologists and speech therapists, audiologists, social workers and advanced practice nurses. This complete team approach ensures you receive individualized care specific to your needs.

Treatment depends on the cancer type, location and size of the tumor. Doctors often treat cancerous head and neck tumors with surgery, or with radiation and chemotherapy. Sometimes, these treatments may happen simultaneously. You and your doctors will act as a team, discussing every available treatment option to develop a personalized treatment plan and ensure the best possible outcome. Follow-up care continues for at least five years.

Some advanced treatment options for head and neck cancer

Advanced head and neck cancer treatment options available at MU Health Care include:

  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy. Our surgical team uses sentinel lymph node biopsy to learn if melanoma, large skin cancers or certain oral cavity cancers have spread to the lymph nodes. This procedure is important in determining an ideal treatment plan and may help some patients avoid major neck surgery to treat the cancer. It is only offered at institutions with extensive experience in the procedure. Our researchers developed the study that moved the National Comprehensive Cancer Network to endorse the use of sentinel lymph node biopsy for oral cancer.
  • Reconstructive surgery. Specially trained surgeons perform advanced reconstructive techniques to restore function and minimize disfigurement for our patients after surgery. This often involves transplanting skin, muscle and/or bone from the leg, arm or abdominal wall to the head and neck area.
  • Complete thyroid and parathyroid care. Endocrinologists, pathologists and head and neck surgeons evaluate cancerous and noncancerous thyroid and parathyroid growths in a single visit. Our pathology team often gives a preliminary diagnosis during this same visit. We use minimally invasive surgery to reduce surgical scarring when possible and rely on imaging techniques, like ultrasound, sestamibi SPECT and 4-D CT scans, for parathyroid localization in patients with primary hyperparathyroidism. We also perform rapid parathyroid hormone assessments during surgery to confirm sufficient removal of abnormal parathyroid glands.
  • Transoral robotic surgery. Our head and neck surgeons have vast experience using transoral robotic surgery to treat certain cancers in the back of the mouth and throat. This minimally invasive and innovative surgical technique uses a robot, guided by your surgeon, to remove tumors. It reduces recovery time and helps gets you back on your feet quicker.

Head and neck cancer rehabilitation

Your cancer treatment plan at MU Health Care may also include physical therapy and rehabilitation after treatment through our cancer rehabilitation program. Speech therapy and physical therapy will help restore your ability to speak and swallow and greatly improve your quality of life after treatment. This can include the restoration of speech after cancer treatment that requires the reoval of the voice box (larynx). We also have a lymphedema management team who assist with rehabilitation of the head and neck structures after undergoing radiation therapy to the head and neck.

Trismus speech therapy is also available for patients from our specialty trained speech therapists. Trismus, a temporomandibular joint disorder, is a condition in which the jaw muscles become tighter and tighter and can lock in place. This can make daily activities such as eating, drinking or oral hygiene difficult or impossible. The condition is caused by radiation fibrosis, head and neck surgery or tissue that has been damaged. Our cancer rehabilitation therapists can work with you on personalized exercises to stretch and strengthen your jaw muscles to help reduce tightness. This therapy usually lasts for four to eight weeks, and a physician referral is required.

Head and neck cancer clinical trials

As an academic health system, MU Health Care has access to the very latest in cancer research, including clinical trials. In some cases, clinical trials give our patients more treatment options, which may lead to better outcomes. If you’re eligible for a clinical trial, our team will provide more information about your participation interest.