Charlotte Jacobs, MD
The general internist has an important role in the management of head and neck squamous cell cancers. This heterogeneous group of cancers must be accurately diagnosed and staged before planning treatment. Curability is directly related to stage at presentation and, because most patients with such cancers present to internists first, these physicians must be familiar with presenting symptoms and must be suspicious enough to refer patients with symptoms for appropriate evaluation. The work-up of patients with suspected unknown primary cancer presenting as adenopathy is detailed, and the physician is cautioned not to immediately proceed to open biopsy. As many as 10% of such primary cancers remain undetected, although, with proper therapy, the 5-year survival rate for squamous cell cancer of the head and neck is 60%. Those patients cured of head and neck cancer still face significant psychosocial and medical problems, including hypothyroidism, xerostomia, and a 20% rate of second primary cancer. Head and neck cancer is highly preventable; 75% of cases are related to tobacco and alcohol use. Smokeless tobacco has gained popularity among young Americans and is associated with an increased incidence of head and neck cancer at several sites. Education is crucial, and internists must seek strategies to stop patients from using tobacco products. Other etiologic factors include industrial carcinogens, Epstein-Barr virus, and diet. Retrospective serologic and dietary recall studies of vitamin A suggest an etiologic role of diet; vitamin A analogs have been tested in preneoplastic lesions. To reduce mortality from head and neck cancers, the general internist must play a central role in prevention and early detection.
Jacobs C. The Internist in the Management of Head and Neck Cancer. Ann Intern Med. ;113:771–778. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-113-10-771
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Published: Ann Intern Med. 1990;113(10):771-778.
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Print ISSN: 0003-4819 | Online ISSN: 1539-3704
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