Q. My 51-year-old brother has just been diagnosed with advanced cancer in his neck. We're waiting for results of PET scan for exact diagnosis and chemo will begin shortly. Can you offer any encouraging words?

A.

I am sorry that your brother has to wait for more further information about what may be an advanced head and neck cancer. As difficult as waiting may be, however, it is essential that the medical team have as full a picture of his cancer as possible, to help them — and more importantly, your brother — understand what the treatment options are. There are different types of oral, head, and neck cancers: cancers of the oral cavity (including the lips, gums, and hard palate), the nasal cavity and sinuses, the salivary glands, the larynx (or voice box), and the pharynx and hypopharynx (different parts of the throat).

For a number of these cancers, treatments have improved, resulting in better quality of life and survival rates. Some of these improved treatments are summarized in our Connect booklet, Head & Neck Cancer: Your Guide to the Latest Research and Treatments – Highlights from ASCO 2010. Besides treatments specific to certain types of head and neck cancers, there is a whole new class of treatments called targeted treatments that are now being applied to head and neck cancers with promising results.

At 51, your brother is on the younger side for people with head and neck cancer, a factor which could work in his favor when estimating his ability to tolerate treatment and the likelihood of a good outcome. But statistics provide only a limited view of what the future may hold in store for your brother. It will be important for his medical team to review his individual cancer situation and medical history before they, or anyone else, can predict how all this will turn out.

You can prepare yourself by reading some basic information pertaining to head and neck cancer (how it is diagnosed and treated) to help you create a list of questions to ask the doctors: