Head and neck cancer: overview

The term head and neck cancer describes a range of tumours. The most common sites of head and neck cancers are the oral cavity, oropharynx, nasopharynx, hypopharynx, larynx, nasal cavity and salivary glands.

Head and neck cancer occurs mainly in adults, however, some children may present with either benign or malignant tumours of the head and neck.

Treatment for head and neck cancer may include surgery and/or oncological treatments such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy. There is also increasing evidence for the use of biologically targeted agents, such as viruses. These treatments may result in physical, emotional and psychological problems. It is common for people to experience swallowing and/or speech and voice problems from the point of diagnosis, for the duration of, and beyond the completion of oncological treatments.

Key points:

  • Speech and language therapists (SLTs) have expertise in assessing, diagnosing and managing disorders of communication, speech, voice and swallowing as a result of head and neck cancer.

  • SLTs develop and support the communication skills of both the patient and communicative partners.

  • SLTs have a unique and essential role to help facilitate alaryngeal voice restoration post laryngectomy.

  • SLTs contribute to the decision-making process of selection of prosthesis, care and management in Surgical Voice Restoration service (SVR) post laryngectomy.

  • Early SLT intervention for swallowing problems associated with head and neck cancer requires a thorough assessment that may include both videofluoroscopy and/or FEES (fibreoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing) in addition to bedside assessment which may take place prior to any treatment.

For more information read our Head and neck cancer factsheet.

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