For people with head and neck cancer, choosing an experienced doctor is an important step in the cancer journey. Tumors in the mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), nose, or sinuses can be hard to reach. This means they can be hard to treat. Plus, treatments can change your appearance or cause problems with speech, swallowing, taste, sight, or hearing.
Head and neck cancer specialists at the WVU Cancer Institute treat even the most challenging tumors. They use advanced tools and techniques to help patients fight cancer with fewer complications.
State-of-the-Art Surgery for Head and Neck Cancers
Most head and neck cancers are caused by smoking, and West Virginia has one of the highest smoking rates in the country. Also, the incidence of cancer caused by the humanpapilloma virus (HPV) is causing increase in the numbers of tonsil and base of tongue cancers. Since surgery is often the first line of treatment for people with head and neck cancer, as the rates of head and neck cancer continue to rise in the local population, the need for surgery continues to grow.
“Here at the Cancer Institute, we have a team of four talented head and neck surgeons,” says Tanya Fancy, MD, FACS, chief of head and neck surgery at WVU Medicine. “We frequently treat people with a type of head and neck cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. We also have extensive experience treating salivary gland tumors, thyroid cancer, all types of skin cancer, and rarer conditions like carotid body tumors.”
In addition to Dr. Fancy, the head and neck surgical oncology team includes:
Head and neck surgeons at the WVU Cancer Institute offer the full range of surgery options. These include minimally invasive procedures, such as transoral robotic surgery and endoscopic skull-base surgery. Minimally invasive techniques may help patients go home sooner and recover faster. And they help surgeons remove tumors with fewer incisions, while preserving important functions like speech and swallowing.
“We do everything we can to make sure treatments don’t cause long-term harm,” says Dr. Fancy. “Our primary goal is to cure our patients, but with the fewest side effects possible. Not only do we want to give our patients as many years as possible, but we want them to enjoy those years.”
Team members also conduct research to help improve the experience – and success – of surgery. For example, Dr. Fancy is exploring how patient frailty impacts recovery from complex head and neck surgery. And Dr. Turner, who has developed novel robotic surgery techniques to access hard to reach areas of the skull base, is leading international research studying the safety, outcomes, and value of minimally invasive surgical techniques used in the treatment of head and neck cancer.
A Team Approach to Cancer Care
Head and neck surgeons at the WVU Cancer Institute work closely with each other and experts from other fields.
“Many of our patients need additional treatments that head and neck surgeons don’t provide,” says Dr. Fancy. “They see radiation oncologists if they need radiation therapy or medical oncologists for chemotherapy. When patients have tumors near the base of the skull, we partner with neurosurgeons. If they have cancer near their eye and need repairs to the eye socket or eyelid, we work with doctors called oculoplastic surgeons.”
The team also holds a weekly tumor board conference where providers from multiple disciplines – including medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, supportive care specialists, speech therapists, and social workers – come together to ensure they are providing coordinated care for head and neck cancer patients.
“We use this time to discuss new patients or current patients who have new concerns or need a new treatment plan,” explains Dr. Fancy. “Our patients can have some peace of mind knowing so many experts weigh in on their treatment plans, and that their disease management is tailored to their unique needs.”
Providing a Smooth, Seamless Experience
Finding out you have cancer is scary. For many rural West Virginians, figuring out how to get the treatments they need can feel just as overwhelming.
“It’s not uncommon for our patients to travel four hours one way for an appointment,” says Dr. Fancy. “That’s why we make sure every visit is as well-coordinated as possible.”
The Division of Head and Neck Surgery has two full-time employees whose sole focus is making sure things run smoothly for new and existing patients. They help minimize the number of trips patients must make to the Cancer Institute – and maximize the care they receive while there. Patients can have treatments, consultations, imaging tests, and other services all in one visit.
“Many communities don’t have cancer clinics and specialists,” adds Dr. Fancy. “If people have to travel here for care, the least we can do is make their experience as productive and positive as possible. Our patients deserve that.”