Penn Otorhinolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery

Center for Head and Neck Cancer Frequently Asked Questions

The team at Penn Center for Head and Neck Cancer are here to answer any questions you might have regarding head and neck cancer and its treatment options.  See the list below for commonly asked questions.

Where are some of the places in the head and neck that cancer can develop?

Head and neck cancer may begin in the throat or on the voice box. The paranasal sinuses, the air-filled spaces behind the nose responsible for heating inhaled air and increasing speech resonance, are also a region susceptible for developing cancer. Head and neck cancer can also affect the tongue or gums in addition to the salivary glands which make saliva and help soft mass of chewed food go down the esophagus easily. Another site which is prone to cancer is the lymphatic system, the part of the circulatory system which transports white blood cells throughout the body to fight infection.

What are some of the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

Common head and neck cancer symptoms include:

  • White or a red area on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth.
  • Swollen jaw with mouth pain/bleeding which makes it difficult to swallow and speak.
  • Numbness or paralysis of the face along with persistent face, chin, and neck pain.
  • Clogged sinuses and/or chronic sinus infections that don't respond to antibiotics.
  • Breathing issues.
  • Reoccurring headaches.
  • Pain or ringing in the ears which lead to hearing impairment.
How can head and neck cancer be prevented?

Tobacco products such as: snuff, chewing tobacco, cigarettes, cigars, and pipes are main contributors to individuals getting head and neck cancer.  High amounts of nicotine damage the cheek's inner lining allowing for the toxic chemicals to enter the bloodstream and then circulate to other regions of the body. Also, heavy alcohol consumption use raises the risk of developing head and neck cancer. Seventy-five percent of all cancerous mouth and throat tumors are associated with tobacco and alcohol use.

How many patients does the Penn Center for Head and Neck Cancer treat each year?

Penn treats more head and neck cancer patients than any other hospital in the region. Our center performs twice as many head and neck cancer procedures as any other Greater Philadelphia hospital. By putting this experience to work, we offer our patients the best possible treatment outcomes.

What is TransOral robotic surgery (TORS)?

TransOral Robotic Surgery, or TORS was pioneered and developed by Dr. Weinstein and Dr. O'Malley in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Penn Medicine. TORS is a minimally-invasive, robotically-assisted surgical approach to removing tumors of the mouth, throat and voice box. It dramatically improves the treatment of head and neck cancers. Using this approach, tumors can be completely removed while preserving speech, swallowing, and other key functions, thus maintaining quality of life.

Who is a candidate for TORS?

Patients who are interested in TransOral robotic surgery (TORS) should schedule an evaluation by a TORS physician. They will review the patient's records, meet with them to assess their needs, and advise of all treatment options available as well as the risks and benefits of each approach.

If I might need radiation or chemoradiation after surgery, why not just skip surgery?

The rationale for adding radiation or chemoradiation after TORS is almost always based on presence or absence of cancer in the lymph nodes. Almost half the patients who undergo TORS do not have the need for chemotherapy as a postoperative treatment. After a patient undergoes the TORS procedure, the Penn Medicine team is able to decrease the intensity of the radiation or chemoradiation, so patients receive less of a dose than they would have if they did not have TORS. Long-term swallowing function has been shown to be far better with TORS when compared to patients treated with full intensity chemoradiation as reported in the medical literature for patients with oropharyngeal cancer (tonsil and tongue base cancer).

Why choose the Penn Center for Head and Neck Cancer?

Individuals who come to the Penn Center for Head and Cancer  benefit from myPennMedicine, the region's only patient-accessible Electronic Medical Record.  myPennMedicine allows for patients to request prescription renewals and review their health history online.

At Penn, patients can have their tumor type screened for free by the Center for Personalized Diagnostics which pinpoint the gene mutation responsible and the treatment best suited for the cancer.