Form and Function
Curing head and neck cancer is only part of the challenge
Not long ago, Lisa Bourdon-Krause walked into a restaurant. She ordered a hamburger and a Coke. She ate the hamburger. She sipped the Coke through a straw. On the way home, she entertained her two young children with silly songs. Ordinary stuff, you say? Not to Bourdon-Krause. The simple acts of chewing, swallowing, sipping, and especially communicating with her family became extraordinarily important when, diagnosed with oral cancer and facing surgery to remove half her tongue, she thought she might lose all of those abilities. She didn’t, and her seemingly commonplace visit to the hamburger joint is a testament to her successful treatment by a U-M team that cared not only about curing the young mother’s cancer, but also about returning her to something very close to her pre-cancer life. Leading a normal life after cancer treatment is always a concern, but with head and neck cancers — those that originate in the mouth, nose and throat — patients’ apprehensions are especially acute.
“So much of who we are as people involves our head and neck region,” says Carol Bradford, M.D., chair of the Department of Otolaryngology. “Talking, tasting, interacting with other people and the world around us are all so important to our sense of identity.”
Traditionally, many treatments for head and neck cancers have been devastating to self-image and dignity: surgeries that leave patients disfigured or unable to speak clearly, radiation treatments that wither salivary glands and make eating and swallowing difficult. But new approaches, many pioneered at the U-M, focus on preserving appearance, function and sense of self, without compromising a patient’s chances for cure.
It’s a mission that requires a coordinated, patient-centered effort from a team of specialists: surgical oncologists with expertise in head and neck and reconstructive surgery, medical oncologists, radiologists, radiation oncologists, nurses, speech pathologists, physical therapists, schedulers, physician assistants, medical assistants, dentists, prosthodontists and social workers. And it’s a mission that’s becoming increasingly important.