April 12-18 is Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. Cancers (malignant tumors) in the oral cavity, nasal cavity, sinuses, lips, salivary glands, throat and larynx are named as oral, head and neck cancers. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports these cancers account for 3% of all cancer cases in the United States. Due to their locations where food and beverage are ingested, modified, and moved, these types of cancers have a vital connection to nutrition. Cancers in this area of your body can challenge the usual way you eat, drink, and enjoy food. These challenges (a.k.a. barriers) can change, slow, or prevent the usual way you eat or consume nutrition.
Changes in nutrition intake, calorie consumption, and hydration may lead to decreased weight and muscle mass, increased infection, delayed treatment, and unplanned hospitalization. In fact, persons with head and neck cancers carry one of the highest rates of malnutrition among all cancer diagnoses with 25-50% of these people at risk for malnutrition prior to starting treatments. Cancer treatment can trigger additional issues: difficulty swallowing, sore mouth, changes in taste and smell, dry mouth, and nausea and vomiting, each of which can lead to inadequate intake and compromised nutrition status.
Breaks in treatment can result in lower cancer control in the area treated and lower survival rates in persons with head and neck cancer. In these persons, tumor control rate is reduced 1% for every day that a radiation treatment plan is interrupted. Weight loss as small as 6% predicts a reduced response to oncology treatment, reduced survival, and reduced quality of life. Malnutrition is often underreported and if noticed, often unaddressed. However, if malnutrition or its risk factors are treated with nutrition intervention to prevent or limit malnutrition, these nutrition interventions can significantly influence treatment outcomes. One study found that at least 33% or more unplanned hospitalizations and treatment breaks can be prevented by timely Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT) from oncology dietitians/nutritionists. If malnutrition and nutrition side effects are prevented, outcomes can be greatly improved and treatments can be completed on time with marked success. Accredited cancer centers must have a nutrition screening and MNT program in place and accessible to their patients.
Be proactive and request nutrition services for oral head neck cancers. Heads Up actions may include:
- Handle nutrition side effects from treatments
- Educate yourself about nutrition
- Act early when food challenges and issues arise
- Determine a team of medical and health specialists
- Seek support from family, friends, neighbors and survivors
- Use resources to treat nutrient deficiencies
- Pursue weight control during your cancer journey no weight loss
 Isering, E. Esophageal and Head and Neck Cancer: In: Marian M, Roberts, S, eds. Clinical Nutrition for Oncology Patients. Sudbury, MA: ones & Barrett; 2010: 165-185.
 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Oncology Nutrition for Clinical Practice, 2013.
 Odelli C et al. Clin Oncol. 2005: 17:639-645. Study of Early Nutrition Assessment and Intervention Improves Outcomes and Treatment Tolerance in Patients with Cancer. (As presented at the Oncology Nutrition Symposium, Randall, K: “Screening for Malnutrition Risk in the Cancer Patient,” May 2014, Orlando, FL.)