Head & Neck Cancer is the 7th most frequent type of cancer worldwide and accounts for about 3-5% of all cancers in the United States. The good news is that the number of people in the US with head and neck cancer as well as those dying from this type of cancer has been decreasing over the past 20 years.
In North America and Europe, the cancer is usually found in the oral cavity, oropharynx, or larynx. In Mediterranean countries and in East Asia, the cancer is usually found in the nasopharyngeal area. In Southeast China and Taiwan, nasopharyngeal cancer is the most common cause of death in young men.
About 75-85% of Head & Neck Cancers are caused by the use of tobacco and/or alcohol. Even smokeless tobacco has been shown to increase risk. More than 28 cancer-causing chemicals have been found in smokeless tobacco. It takes an ex-smoker 20 years past smoking cessation before their risk returns to that of the general population.
What Are Head & Neck Cancers
Head and Neck cancer is not just one type of cancer. It actually includes a group of cancers that start in either the Mouth, Nose, Throat, Larynx (voice box), Sinuses, or Salivary Glands. It does not typically include Esophageal Cancer and for our purposes we will save Esophageal Cancer for another post.
This part of your body is where digestion starts and as such plays an important role in the digestive process. In fact, digestion starts when you first see or smell food. The salivary glands begin to produce saliva in preparation for eating. Chewing breaks the food into pieces that are more easily digested, while saliva then mixes with the food to begin the process of breaking it down into a form your body can absorb and use.
Most head and neck cancers start in the cells that make up the lining and mucous membranes of the nose, mouth, and throat. These are known as squamous cells and cancer of these cells account for over 90% of all head and neck cancers.
Thankfully squamous cell head and neck cancers don’t usually spread to other body organs but they can spread to lymph nodes. Many times people do not know they have cancer in this area until they see an enlarged lymph node in the neck and have it checked by their physician.
Sometimes cancer in this area can start as white patches or spots in the mouth, this is also known as leukoplakia and in about ⅓ of cases this develops into cancer.
Regular dental examinations will help to identify pre-cancerous lesions in the oral cavity. When detected early, head and neck cancer has a high cure rate, often with just a single type of therapy.
What Causes Head and Neck Cancer To Grow
As I mentioned above, the predominant cause of head and neck cancer is tobacco, with even greater incidence in those who use tobacco and drink excessive amounts of alcohol.
Diet & Lifestyle
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research there is strong evidence linking the following with increased risk:
- Tobacco Use (smoking, chewing tobacco, snuf)
- Percent Body Fatness
- Cantonese-Style Salted Fish (likely from the nitrite & high salt content)
Some evidence linking the intake of the following foods as well:
- Red & Processed Meat
- Preserved Veggies (again likely from the nitrite & salt content)
There is also some evidence linking the intake of these foods with decreased risk:
- Non-Starchy Vegetables
Several genetic disorders such as Fanconi’s Anemia or Dyskeratosis Congenita can increase risk for oral cancer.
About 15-25% of head and neck cancers contain the DNA from HPV (Human Pappilomavirus). This virus, along with EBV (Epstein-Barr Virus) can also cause an increased risk for head and neck cancers; specifically of the tonsils and nasopharyngeal area.
I also like to consider what underlying causes could be at play. As I have shared in previous posts, I do not believe that cancer is caused by bad luck. Rather, what imbalances have been present (usually for many years) which created an environment where cancer could grow and thrive?
In the case of head and neck cancer this most often comes from a direct injury to the cells. Let’s take a look at the possible culprits for this direct injury.
GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease) can increase risk, especially in the throat. Consider that the pH of the stomach can be as low as 2.0 thanks to all that acid that helps us break down our food and absorb nutrients. The problem is when that acid migrates up into the esophagus, throat, or mouth. The pH of these areas are much higher, between 4-7 in the esophagus and throat and between 6-8 in the mouth. When cells in these areas are exposed to acid they become injured. Over time this creates an environment where cancer can develop.
Long-term exposure to toxins plus sluggish detoxification pathways can increase risk for ALL cancers. In head and neck cancers, the following exposures have been shown to be more of a risk factor:
- Mouthwash (alcohol based) – especially for smokers & drinkers
- Wood Dust
- Leather Dust
- Sulfuric Acid Fumes
- Paint Fumes
- Silica from cutting concrete, stones, or cinder blocks in an enclosed area
- Nickel Refining
- Isopropyl Alcohol Manufacture
Inflammation is definitely a risk factor for all cancers but chronic inflammation in the upper airway or mouth could increase your risk specifically for head and neck cancer. One such example is Lichen Planus, an inflammatory disease that affects the cells that line the mouth. This is a condition that often requires the long-term use of immunosuppressive drugs; which further depletes the immune system and its ability to target and remove cancer cells.
Traditional Treatment Options
Treatment may include one therapy or a combination of therapies depending on how advanced the cancer is.
Surgery and Radiation are the mainstays of treatment for most head and neck cancers and remain the standard of care in most cases.
Chemotherapy may be used to shrink a tumor before surgery or radiation. It may also be used to kill lingering cancer cells after surgery and/or radiation treatment. Or it may be used to shrink tumors that cannot be surgically removed.
Cancer cells need specific molecules to survive, multiply and spread. These molecules are usually made by the genes that cause cancer, as well as the cells themselves. Targeted Therapies, such as epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor inhibitors, are designed to interfere with those molecules or the cancer-causing genes that create them and may also be used as part of treatment.
The American Cancer Society is a very useful resource if you’re looking for more detailed information regarding traditional treatment methods.
Whether you’re choosing traditional treatment or an alternative protocol, I always recommend that you look deeper to identify and remedy root causes.
As I described above, there could be several possible imbalances at play…inflammatory, digestive, detoxification, or even viral.
When I work with cancer clients I like to take it in stages. We always start with diet by taking out the foods that can sabotage recovery while bringing in more of the foods that can stop cancer cells and promote healing.
Then we add the lifestyle factors that will make the biggest impact. And finally work through a healing protocol to address root causes.
For Head & Neck Cancer here’s what I would suggest.
In addition to an overall anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory diet there are certain foods that have been shown to be especially helpful in blocking the growth of cancer cells that start in the head and neck area. Bringing in more of these foods will definitely help recovery and should be included on a daily basis.
- Thyme Tea: swish in your mouth & then drink; a 2011 German study found thyme inhibited the growth of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. And a 2016 Chinese study found that one of the phytochemicals in thyme, carvacrol, significantly inhibited the migration and invasion of squamous cell cancer cells. Thyme is also a great anti-inflammatory & anti-microbial herb and may even help relieve pain.
- Green Tea
- Beta-carotene & Vitamin A rich foods: leafy greens plus orange & green colored veggies
- Vitamin C rich foods: this is even more important for smokers
- Lycopene rich foods: red foods like cooked tomatoes, watermelon, and guava
Some strategies will also need to be added to manage the side effects of traditional treatment. Unfortunately the side effects of surgery and/or radiation often cause very difficult and painful swallowing. As you can imagine, this will dramatically change what you can eat and often results in more weight loss than desired. Here are some food strategies that can help keep both your weight & nutrition status up. But I also highly recommend that you reach out to me for a Free Planning Session so we can tailor individual strategies that will best help you manage the side effects that you are experiencing.
- Smaller, more frequent meals will be easier to manage.
- Make every bite count with protein, healthy fat, & phytonutrients.
- Stick with warm, cooked, or soft foods as these will be the easiest to swallow:
- Soups made with mineral-rich bone broth, pureed if needed
- Pureed veggies with bone broth & grass-fed butter or ghee
- Fish will be softer and easier to eat than chicken or beef.
- Pureed or mashed beans or lentils, like hummus, can be another soft protein option.
- Whole fat, plain, Greek yogurt with fruit compote
- Hot cereal (thinner is generally better) with fruit compote and nut butter melted in
- Scrambled eggs in cream and with added butter
- Make your beverages count too:
- Homemade Smoothies will be a much better option than Ensure or Boost.
- Fresh veggie juices can be an easy way to get in more veggies without having to chew.
- Bone broth with added protein powder (unflavored, unsweetened).
- Green or Matcha Tea Bulletproof (with added coconut oil & grass-fed butter)
- Unsweetened almond or coconut milk with turmeric, ginger, and other anti-cancer spices.
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, supplementation is very individual to each person and a lot of it has to do with the quality of the diet and the cancer treatment plan. For head and neck cancer, I would consider supplementing with the following.
- Vitamin D3
- Folic Acid
Tobacco is the single largest risk factor for head and neck cancer. Followed only by excessive drinking. As difficult as it will be to address both of these habits; it will be critical for healing and to prevent recurrence.
Other steps you can take is to discontinue using an alcohol based mouthwash. And to add in Oil Pulling with thyme essential oil to help heal sores in the mouth or throat. If you’re new to oil pulling, all you do is put one teaspoon of coconut oil in your mouth with 3-5 drops of essential oil, swish it around for 15–20 minutes and spit it out into the trash. Then rinse with warm water and brush your teeth.
The first step in healing root causes would be to identify and treat EBV or HPV infections, while also adding in nutrients & supplements that can help block the viruses oncogenes. This will be critical in preventing a recurrence and reducing risk for a secondary cancer caused by either of these viruses. It will also help to free up the immune system to better target and remove the cancer.
It’s important to understand that once you have had cancer you will always have an increased risk of that cancer returning. And you may also have an increased risk of getting a second cancer.
Having had a Head and Neck Cancer increases your risk for getting another Head & Neck Cancer, Esophageal Cancer, or Lung Cancer.
That increased risk can last for 5-10 years and is generally because the same carcinogenic exposure responsible for the first cancer is already in the body. Having had radiation treatment to the area also increases risk for a new cancer in the same area.
If your Head & Neck Cancer was because of infection with EBV or HPV, then this increases your risk of getting one of the following if the infection is not properly treated.
- EBV: Burkitt’s Lymphoma, Hodgkin’s Disease
- HPV: Cervical, Anal, Vulvar, Vaginal, Penile
The important thing to remember is that you CAN take steps to prevent this from happening!
Optimize your diet with anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory foods! Include the specific foods & supplements listed above.
Add supportive anti-cancer lifestyle practices like daily movement, stress support, and emotional wellness.
And most importantly, identify your root causes and work through the necessary protocols to heal and re-balance those cancer triggers.
Start With Your Diet!
Probably the easiest and most impactful place to start is with your diet. No matter where you are in your head and neck cancer journey, your diet can help you heal, recover, and prevent recurrence.
It is my passion to help people just like you optimize their cancer recovery with healing, medicinal foods and targeted strategies. While also helping you uncover and address the potential causes of your cancer so you can take steps to significantly reduce the chance of dealing with a recurrence.
If you’re ready to start designing your ideal Cancer Recovery Plan, the first step is to book a FREE Planning Session where we will review your diet, your lifestyle, and your cancer treatment plan and begin to map out your best recovery strategy.
Stop searching for answers on your own and gain the support & guidance of a trusted professional. Click the link to learn more & book your planning session with me today: “Get One-on-One Help”