MORRIS – Treating cancers of the head and neck can be difficult, and side effects may be lasting.
Sharon Bernico, a Morris Hospital & Healthcare Centers radiation therapy nurse, said some cancer survivors have little visible evidence of their surgeries and radiation treatments. Others, she added, have had radical resections or skin problems because of the radiation.
“To go through these cancers is tough,” Bernico said. “I think it’s one of the toughest to go through, but it usually has a wonderful outcome.”
Bernico and speech therapist Ali Bute are co-facilitators of the Oral and Head and Neck Cancer Support Group at Morris Hospital. It began a year ago at the request of Bernico’s patients.
“Just about everyone comes away from treatment with problems with swallowing, dry mouths and foods they will never eat again,” Bernico said. “I think the guys wanted to know there were other people out there who were going through the same thing they were.”
All members of the support group are men. The National Cancer Institute states that twice as many men are affected, but Bernico said she sees a much higher ratio at her clinic.
According to Dr. Scott DiVenere of ENT Surgical Consultants of Joliet and Morris, these are cancers that originate in any areas of the head and neck except the spine and skull.
They include malignancies of the thyroid; salivary glands; mucosal surfaces in the mouth, nasal areas and throat; the tongue; voice box; and bone – even muscle and skin if they go deep enough.
“Anything that causes chronic irritation or inflammation is a risk factor for the typical head and neck cancer,” DiVenere said. “Major risks are alcohol, tobacco, and especially the combination of the two, as well as chronic acid reflux.”
Poor dental hygiene also can increase the risk of these cancers, he said, as can the human papilloma virus.
Symptoms can include a lump or sore that does not heal, a sore throat that doesn’t go away, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, a white or red patch inside the mouth, swelling of the jaw and bleeding or pain in the mouth, as well as trouble breathing or speaking, headaches, blocked sinuses, nose bleeds, eye swelling, pain in the face, trouble hearing or ringing in the ears.
Bill McGrath, 68, of rural Minooka, originally dismissed the symptoms of his tonsil squamous cell cancer.
“A lump grew on the side of my neck,” McGrath said. “I kind of dismissed it at first. I always had problems with my ears, and I thought it had something to do with that.”
McGrath said he didn’t tell anyone the true diagnosis except his wife, until he learned more about the treatment and prognosis. He still attends the support group.
DiVenere was McGrath’s physician and recommended surgery and radiation therapy. Overwhelmed with the diagnosis, McGrath said he immediately wanted to talk to the head and neck cancer survivors in the support group, where he found information and support.
McGrath’s cancer was diagnosed one year ago. He had surgery in August, then 37 radiation treatments after that. The cancer appears to be gone, but the effects of treatments are not.
Along with dry mouth and some difficulty eating certain meats, occasionally a bone shard will appear through McGrath’s gums. Still, McGrath said he is well enough to cut his own grass – all 3½ acres of it – and fish and trap shoot with his wife.
Papillary cancer survivor Barton Vest, 73, of Gardner said he was one of the group’s charter members. Vest’s cancer was diagnosed in 2011, after he had trouble swallowing.
Vest underwent two surgeries – one for each side of his neck – and now has an ear-to-ear scar. He then was given radioactive iodine tablets to destroy any remaining cancer cells. But the cancer returned.
Another surgery and 33 radiation treatments later, Vest said the cancer appears to be gone. However, Vest now also has a dry mouth, no feeling in his jaw and trouble swallowing. That’s why the support group is valuable.
“With the support group, everybody had the radiation, and you’re talking to people who know what it’s like,” Vest said.
In addition to the otolaryngologist and pathologist, treating head and neck cancers may require medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, prosthodontists, dentists, plastic surgeons, dietitians, physical therapists and speech therapists.
DiVenere said recovery can take six months to a year – especially with advanced cancer – so patients can feel medically overloaded. This is why a support group is a good idea, he said.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Oral and Head and Neck Cancer Support Group
WHEN: 2 to 3 p.m. the third Tuesday of the month
WHERE: Morris Regional Oncology Center, 1600 W. Route 6, Morris
WHO: For those who have had the cancers and for their significant others, no matter which medical facility they attended for treatment. The support group is free.