Collaborative Care is the Hallmark of Hoag’s Head and Neck Cancer Program

Collaboration is the key to quality care.

Hoag’s Head and Neck Cancer Program is a comprehensive approach to maximize quality of life for patients while expertly positioning Hoag to take on the changing dynamics of these types of cancers.

Head and neck cancers were once most commonly diagnosed in patients upward of age 70, and often in those with a history of alcohol or tobacco use. Recently physicians have noted a rise in the number of cases of cancer originating from the oral cavity, in the younger population, without any history of high risk behaviors.

Diagnoses typically include squamous cell cancers of the paranasal sinuses, nasal cavity, oral cavity, tongue, salivary glands, larynx, pharynx and thyroid.

Physicians in recent years have seen a sharp increase in the number of cancer cases caused by the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States — the human papillomavirus (HPV).

“With the HPV-association, we’re seeing a dramatic rise in head and neck cancers,” said Brian Kim, M.D., Hoag radiation oncologist. “In order to properly manage patients, a multidisciplinary approach to therapy is needed.”

This shift in demographics of head and neck cancer patients has been the catalyst for Hoag to develop a unique, multi-faceted program that employs the latest technology and expert physicians to treat the rapidly increasing number of patients.

A panel of surgeons, radiologists, oncologists, nurse navigators, speech pathologists and dietitians work together, and meet twice monthly, to decide the best course for patients during and post-treatment.

By relying on expert and experienced surgeons who specialize in removing cancer from the head and neck area, patients can trust their outcome will be the best one possible.

“It’s an area that deals with the ability to eat, communicate, express emotion, interaction and relationships,” said Timothy Kelley, M.D., Head and Neck Cancer program director and oncologic surgeon. “It’s a key part of being human. We look to restore their humanity and dignity, while curing their cancer.”

For some patients, surgery is not the best option and radiation therapy plays a much larger role in treatment.

Intensity-Modulated Radiation Treatment (IMRT) using Tomotherapy and Elekta Agility, the latest in radiation therapy technology, allows oncologists to better target cancer cells.

“It focuses the radiation dose to the desired areas and avoids the normal tissue structures to prevent any long-term dryness of the mouth,” Dr. Kim said. “Now, many patients are able to function normally after treatment, which has been a big advancement in patients’ quality of life.”

Head and neck cancer patients have high cure rates after surgery and radiation treatment but often face challenges with nutrition, taste, swallowing and speaking.

Unique at Hoag, upon initiation of treatment, patients meet with an oncology nurse, speech pathologist and a registered dietitian. This allows the team to identify any issues prior to treatment and to proactively minimize problems with nutrition, speech or swallowing. Patients are followed by this multidisciplinary team throughout their treatment to assure they maintain their weight, which studies show helps people achieve better outcomes.

“What I see is truly patient-centered care,” said Rhonda Hjelm, MSN, RN, OCN, head and neck cancer nurse navigator. “We can really consistently follow each patient from diagnosis through survivorship.”

Helping patients navigate their appointments, getting them in contact with support groups and working to ensure their treatment plan runs smoothly is all part of Hoag’s dedication to comprehensive care.

“Hoag has a really well-rounded program,” Hjelm said. “With this team collaboration, we can really enhance and improve patient care and experience.”