Head and neck cancers account for about 4 percent of cases in the United States, affecting more than 50,000 people each year. Survival from these cancers has increased for the past 30 years.
While survival continues to grow, it’s also important to focus on life after treatment. Head and neck cancers most often involve the inside of the mouth, into the back of the throat and voice box. The cancer itself and treatment can affect everyday activities like swallowing.
The UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic helps patients with side effects related to their cancer before, during, and after treatment. The goal is to help patients return to their normal lives as much as possible after treatment.
“They are very thankful to be cured of their cancer, but they also want to be able to do the things they love,” says Marci Nilsen, PhD, RN, co-director of the clinic. “It’s important for us as providers to focus on keeping them in the center of our care and identifying what they need and what they want beyond treatment. If we can help with some of those things, then it does increase their quality of life.”
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What Is the UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic?
UPMC created the Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic in 2016 to care for people dealing with side effects related to their cancer treatment.
Dr. Nilsen and her fellow clinic co-director, Jonas Johnson, MD, noticed many patients had a variety of side effects that went beyond just one area.
Treatment-related side effects from head and neck cancer include:
- Dental issues
- Swallowing issues
- Trismus, a tightening of the jaw
- Musculoskeletal problems, such as limited range of motion or pain in the area surrounding the head and neck
“In realizing that these issues go beyond one provider, we wanted to bring together a multidisciplinary team,” Dr. Nilsen says. “We can really get a more collaborative care approach to helping these patients address their symptoms and side effects.”
Many of the side effects also can cause an impact on patients’ everyday lives, Dr. Nilsen says. The clinic tries to help them with their symptoms to improve their quality of life.
Who Can Go to the UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic?
Most head and neck cancers are caused by squamous cell carcinomas, tumors that come from the flat cells that line the insides of many parts of your body.
The UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic treats patients who have or had cancers of the mouth, into the back of the throat and voice box.
Patients can come to the clinic at any stage of their cancer treatment: before, during, or after.
Treatment at the UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic
A team of specialists from several different areas of medicine provides care at the UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic.
“It allows a lot of different viewpoints to come together and figure out how to help patients if there’s more they need,” Dr. Nilsen says.
When patients come in, they fill out a questionnaire that helps the team identify care for them:
Available treatment includes:
- Swallowing therapy: Swallowing problems are a common side effect of head and neck cancer treatment. Swallowing therapy can help patients learn exercises that can help them keep their range of motion and strength. After cancer treatment, patients can learn whether they have any changes in their throat and learn ways to make swallowing easier or better.
- Dental health: Many head and neck cancer patients experience symptoms inside their mouth. The clinic can help with many dental issues, including dry mouth, tooth removal, cleanliness, and more.
- Audiology: Patients can get their hearing screened before and after cancer treatment to determine if there have been any changes. Audiologists associated with the survivorship clinic can provide treatment for hearing loss and other issues like tinnitus (ear ringing) and vertigo (dizziness).
- Physical therapy: Many head and neck cancer patients experience musculoskeletal problems, including limited range of motion or pain, limited jaw opening, or poor posture. Through physical therapy, they can learn therapies to improve their physical ability and lessen pain.
- Dietitian: Some patients may need to modify their diet to deal with side effects like swallowing problems. Dietitians can help them learn how to get enough calories.
- Clinical psychologist: If patients are experiencing any mental or emotional problems related to their cancer or treatment, they can see a psychologist for help.
The clinic also has a head and neck surgeon and speech-language pathologist, who work together to assess the patients’ problems and recommend changes.
The UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic is inside UPMC’s Eye and Ear Institute. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 412-864-1987 or visit us online.
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