Head and neck cancers increasingly treatable, expert says

Jun 4, 2013

The kind of cancer former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly was diagnosed with is not uncommon and is generally treatable, according to a prominent local physician.

Kelly will have surgery Friday to remove a portion of his jaw bone after an oral surgeon found a cyst in his mouth. He says he will find out whether he needs radiation or chemotherapy after the surgery is completed.

Dr. Wesley Hicks, Jr., Chairman of the Department of Head & Neck/Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery and Director of the Head and Neck Surgical Fellowship Program at Roswell Park Cancer Institute
Credit roswellpark.org

Advancements in treating head and neck cancers like Kelly's squamous cell carcinoma have improved greatly over the years according to Dr. Wesley Hicks, Jr. who chairs the Head and Neck Department at Roswell Park. 

While unable to speak to Kelly's case specifically, Hicks says most head and neck malignancies are treatable using a combined approach to therapy.

"Having a diagnosis of a head and neck cancer is not a death sentence. I have known very few people who can't be treated and know many people who are cured of this disease," Hicks says.

Hicks the prognosis of a patient depends on the cancer's site and stage. He says the ability to treat the disease using  combined therapies, such as surgery and radiation, has improved greatly.

"The surgery for many of the diseases that we treat at Roswell Park in our department has advanced exponentially in terms of sophistication and the ability to do things in non-invasive ways," Hicks says.

"It is a very common cancer in developing and third-world countries. In the Western world, it would be ranked, depending what article you read, between the fourth and the eight most common malignancy seen," Hicks says.

Hicks says, as with any health care problem, early detection is key to treating cancers of the head and neck. He says it is important to maintain a strong general awareness of one's oral health.