Early Detection Key to Beating Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Thursday, July 11, 2013 - 8:57am
Assistant Professor of Oncology, Head & Neck / Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery

Squamous cell carcinoma hit the local spotlight last month when former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly announced his diagnosis, isolated in his upper jaw. About 55,000 Americans will be diagnosed with this disease in 2013.

The diagnosis left many people curious about this type of cancer. Even though I personally did not treat Jim Kelly’s case, I want to share some information about squamous cell carcinoma, including who may be at risk, what to watch for and the importance of early detection.

This cancer can appear almost anywhere in the head and neck area, particularly in the mouth, on the tongue or lip, or near the upper part of the throat. The Head & Neck / Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery Center at Roswell Park sees at least one new case of squamous cell carcinoma each day, but the first line of defense begins with you. Do not ignore persistent, unexplained pain and/or bleeding in your mouth. If you notice these symptoms taking place, make an appointment with your primary care physician or dentist. You should also be vigilant of non-healing wounds, throat pain and difficulty swallowing.

My colleagues have said it many times on RPCI Cancer Talk and it rings true in this case as well — if you smoke, quit. In the United States, smokers are at the greatest risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma. Lung cancer comes to mind when thinking of smoking and cancer risk, and rightfully so. However, it’s very important that primary care physicians and their patients be aware that smoking also carries an increased risk for cancers of the mouth and throat.

As with almost any cancer diagnosis, the key to beating squamous cell carcinoma is catching it early, underscoring the importance of watching for the previously mentioned symptoms. In this case, early stage diagnoses come with very good survival rates, however those in the later stages come with rates that are considerably worse. If caught and removed early enough, while still confined to a local area, the cancer does not come back.

Squamous cell carcinoma can be treated surgically or non-surgically. The surgical treatments are becoming increasingly sophisticated and less invasive. The non-surgical treatments consist either of radiation, or a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. Further detail regarding treatment options at Roswell Park, including robotic surgery and photodynamic therapy, can be found in the accompanying video.

In addition to receiving treatment via the Head & Neck / Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery Center, Roswell Park also houses an excellent Dental & Maxillofacial Care Center, providing patients with any necessary dental prostheses.