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Improvement seen in diagnosing, caring for head, neck cancer

The good news for patients with head and neck cancer is the improvement in diagnosis and care over the years.

“It’s treatable and curable,” said Dr. Wesley L. Hicks, chairman of head and neck surgery at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly announced Monday that he has been diagnosed with cancer of the upper jawbone but that doctors have told him his prognosis for recovery is very good.

Head and neck cancers account for about 3 percent of new cancers in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. The institute estimates that more than 52,000 men and women in the country were diagnosed with the condition in 2012. The cancers are more common among men than women

The overall five-year survival rate is above 50 percent, but it’s difficult to make broad generalizations about cancers of the head and neck because the treatment and prognosis can vary by site and stage.

“It’s very nuanced,” said Hicks. “A centimeter difference in the site of the cancer can make a huge difference in the treatment and prognosis.”

The cancer – squamous-cell carcinoma – is isolated to Kelly’s upper jaw and has not spread to other parts of his body, Kelly said in a statement issued through the Bills Media Relations Department. Surgery is scheduled Friday.

Squamous cells are thin cells found on the surface of the skin and the lining of body cavities, including the mouth. Nearly all head and neck cancers start in squamous cells. Cancers of the head and neck are further categorized by the area of the head or neck where they begin.

Head and neck cancers can cause a host of symptoms that can resemble symptoms for other conditions, including sores in the mouth, a lump on the neck and difficulty swallowing. Treatment can be complex and may consist of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, or a combination of treatments.

“It’s usually multimodal treatment,” said Hicks.

He and others said treatment will vary depending on such factors as the tumor location, the stage of the cancer, whether the tumor is a recurrence, the patient’s age and overall health, and patient preferences.