Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosis: Terms You Should Know
Rachel Zohn | March 5, 2018
It can be daunting to try to make sense of the medical terminology for head and neck cancer. Although we look at our face in the mirror every day, most of us don’t know all the medical terms for the organs and elements that make up our head and neck, let alone the tests and procedures in diagnosing cancer in these areas. The following definitions will help you make better sense of the language and terms associated with this disease.
Squamous cell carcinoma, human papillomavirus, and Epstein-Barr virus
The most common type of head and neck cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, which is cancer that begins in the thin, flat cells that make up the moist, mucosal lining inside our mouth, nose and throat. Squamous cell cancer is often associated with a history of smoking or exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that is transmitted through sexual contact. Epstein-Barr virus is another virus that can be associated with some head and neck cancers.
The five main types of head and neck cancer: Part 1
There are five main types of head and neck cancer categorized by the area where it develops. 1.) Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer involves the larynx or voice box. 2.) Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer involves the area inside and around the nose, which connects to the throat, and the paranasal sinuses are the air-filled areas around the nasal cavity. 3.) Nasopharyngeal cancer involves the nasopharynx, or the air passageway at the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
The five main types of head and neck cancer: Part 2
4.) Oral and oropharyngeal cancer, which involves the mouth and tongue and the oropharynx, includes the middle of the throat, from the tonsils to the top of the voice box. 5.) Salivary gland cancer involves the glands that produce saliva to keep the mouth moist and help break down food.
Salivary gland cancers
There are many different salivary gland cancers. Cancers of the salivary glands are named for the cell type it begins in. The most common type is mucoepidermoid carcinoma, which usually begins in the parotid glands, the large salivary glands in front of the ears. Adenoid cystic carcinoma is usually slow growing but hard to get rid of because it tends to spread along nerves. Adenocarcinomas describes cancers that begin in the mucus-secreting glands throughout the body.
The TNM staging system
Head and neck cancer are staged using the TNM staging system. Tumor (T) refers to the size of the primary tumor. Node (N) describes the involvement of the lymph nodes near the primary tumor. Metastasis (M) is the spread of the cancer to other parts of the body.
Prognosis, benign, malignant
Prognosis is the likely outcome or chance for recovery. Benign means noncancerous, while malignant means cancerous, with a tendency to invade and destroy nearby tissue. NED means no evidence of disease.
Test terminology: Part 1
A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue to be examined under a microscope. Molecular testing is used to identify specific genes, proteins and other factors of a tumor to determine treatment options. A barium swallow is a test to evaluate problems swallowing. A patient ingests a liquid containing barium and a series of x-rays are taken. Panoramic radiograph or Panorex is a rotating x-ray that can take a panoramic image of the upper and lower jawbones to detect cancer.
Test terminology: Part 2
A bone scan examines changes to bones by using nuclear scanning and a radioactive tracer, which is injected into a patient’s vein. A Positron Emission Tomography scan (PET scan) focuses on organs in the body. It uses a special dye with radioactive tracers, which are injected into a patient’s vein, to create computerized images. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a magnet linked to a computer to create detailed pictures of areas inside the body.
Your team of health care professionals
A multidisciplinary team is the collaboration of doctors and clinicians from different specialties in caring for a patient. A medical oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer using drugs. An otolaryngologist is a surgeon who specializes in the ear, nose and throat. An oral pathologist is a dental specialist with training in the management of mouth diseases. A prosthodontist makes prosthesis, or artificial dental or facial parts, to restore swallowing, speech and appearance.
No matter where you are in your journey with head and neck cancer, the medical terms can be confusing, but trust that you will get a better handle on the terminology as you go along. As you learn more about the disease, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor to break things down in layman’s terms. For more head and neck cancer definitions related to treatments and therapies, see part 2 of this glossary series.