Sarah Cannon - October 11, 2022

Meredith Pelster, MD, MSCI is a medical oncologist and the Assistant Director of Gastrointestinal (GI) Research for Sarah Cannon Research Institute at Tennessee Oncology, specializing in GI cancer as well as head and neck cancer research. Dr. Pelster shares the latest research in head and neck cancer treatment.

Immunotherapy for head and neck cancer

“One of the most significant advances in head and neck cancer treatment has been the use of immunotherapy for individuals with metastatic head and neck cancer,” says Dr. Pelster. “The addition of immunotherapy to chemotherapy—and, in some cases, the use of immunotherapy instead of chemotherapy—has been shown to lead to longer survival for these patients.”

Most people with newly diagnosed metastatic head and neck cancer will now receive immunotherapy as part of their cancer treatment.

“As part of the treatment planning evaluation, a patient’s tumor can be tested for an immunotherapy marker to help determine whether a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy or immunotherapy alone is recommended, leading to a more personalized approach,” she says.

Sarah Cannon Research Institute’s head and neck cancer clinical trials

Sarah Cannon Research Institute played a role in the addition of immunotherapy to metastatic head and neck cancer treatment.

“We have been involved in prior studies utilizing immunotherapy for head and neck cancer patients,” says Dr. Pelster.

Currently, Sarah Cannon Research Institute is participating in a number of studies for solid tumors, including head and neck cancers, which focus on patients whose cancers have progressed despite treatment.

“Researchers are also evaluating if using immunotherapy along with radiation therapy can help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence in patients with head and neck cancers that have not spread to other parts of the body,” she says.

Learn more about head and neck cancer clinical trials at Sarah Cannon.

Head and neck cancer symptoms

Head and neck cancer can affect the:

  • Oral cavity
  • Throat
  • Voice box
  • Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity
  • Salivary glands

Dr. Pelster says individuals can develop many different types of symptoms of head and neck cancer, depending on where the cancer is located. As with most forms of cancer, the earlier it’s detected and treated, the better. Listen to your body and see your primary care provider if you persistently have any of the following symptoms:

  • Ear pain
  • Neck pain
  • Swelling
  • Pain or difficulty with swallowing
  • Chronic cough
  • Hoarseness
  • Change in your voice
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Lump on your neck, nose, mouth, or face
  • Nosebleeds
  • Trouble hearing
  • Headaches
  • Sore on the mouth or lip that doesn’t heal
  • Red or white patch inside the mouth or on the lips or gums
  • Loose teeth
  • Jaw swelling
  • Feeling like something is stuck in your throat
  • Bleeding, pain, or numbness in the mouth or on the lips
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Trouble opening your mouth completely
  • Blocked sinuses that won’t clear
  • Dentures that no longer fit properly
  • Blocked sinuses that won’t clear
  • Swelling in the eyes
  • Double vision
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Facial pain
  • Facial weakness or numbness

“These are all potential symptoms of head and neck cancer that should be evaluated,” she says.

Head and neck cancer prevention

In addition to watching for symptoms, it’s crucial to take steps to reduce your risk of head and neck cancer.

“Many head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use,” says Dr. Pelster. “Talk to your primary care provider about smoking cessation strategies to help reduce your risk of head and neck as well as other types of cancers.”

To learn more about head and neck cancer, visit Sarah Cannon’s What is Head and Neck Cancer? on the Sarah Cannon website, as well as our blog. If you have questions about head and neck cancer, call askSARAH at 844-482-4812 or visit askSARAH online.