An article on today’s BBC News UK discussed why scans to detect cancer reduce the need for risky operations in head and neck cancer patients. Minimally invasive approaches to the detection and treatment of head and neck cancer are what we as a charity pioneer.

HNCF Director Professor Mark McGurk says:

Cancers that occur in the oropharynx (tonsils and back of tongue) and are linked to the HPV virus, are very sensitive to radiation therapy. The patient also tends to present with advanced disease, with either a lump in the tonsil or base of tongue and a lump in the neck (spread of cells to the lymph nodes in the neck). It is normally the appearance of the lump in the neck that draws the patient to the doctor.

What commonly happens is that after a course of chemotherapy the disease tends to shrink away, but frequently a lump remains in the neck. This normally poses a dilemma. Approximately 20% of the lumps will contain an active tumour, but it’s impossible to tell which ones do and don’t. If you wait and it is cancerous, then the outcomes will suffer as a result. If you do decide to operate, then 80% of people get an unnecessary operation, and on top of that, their tissue is badly damaged from the radiation and do not heal. A PET scan solves the problem. If you wait about 12 weeks after the completion of the radiation to give the therapy time to work and the cancer cells to die then inject the patient with a special sugar with a radioactive particle attached, then cancer cells selectively absorb sugar as they need this as an energy source to grow. The sugar is designed so that the cell cannot process it, and it is accumulated in the cancer. The radioactivity can then be visualised on a screen. So if the lump in the neck is still PET positive you know there is a good chance that live cancer cells are still present and then that patient goes on to have a neck dissection.