Until the 1970s, surgery was the primary treatment for patients with head and neck cancers, which can affect the inside of the mouth, the back of the throat or the vocal chords. The more advanced the disease, the more radical the surgery, often resulting in serious side effects, including the loss of the ability to taste, swallow or speak.
Since then, the addition of chemotherapy and radiation to surgery has improved patients' survival and quality of life enormously and remains a standard treatment. For many patients, the combined use of radiation and chemotherapy helps shrink tumors so that surgery can be less aggressive or avoided altogether, allowing them to preserve their voice and ability to swallow.
In the 2000s, the introduction of the first molecularly targeted drug, cetuximab (Erbitux), brought additional hope for patients with certain advanced head and neck cancers. The ability to identify and effectively target more of the genetic drivers of head and neck cancers remains an urgent challenge for researchers.
Recent years have seen an increase in the number of head and neck cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), as opposed to smoking or alcohol consumption. Research shows that HPV-driven tumors typically respond better to treatment, and the availability of an effective HPV vaccine offers the hope of eventually reducing the number of people affected by head and neck cancers worldwide.