Halifax surgeons help pioneer new treatment for throat and mouth cancer

Surgeons at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax are helping develop a surgical technique that reduces recovery time after throat and mouth cancer surgery.

Surgery involves using a microscope and a laser to remove tumours through the mouth

Halifax surgeons have helped develop a less invasive surgery to remove throat and mouth cancers. (iStock)

Doctors at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax are helping develop a surgical technique that reduces recovery time from throat and mouth cancer surgery. 

"We go through the mouth, we have a scope that allows us to keep the mouth open and then with a microscope and a laser we're able to cut the tumour out," Dr. Matthew Rigby, a head and neck surgeon who does research with Dalhousie University, told Information Morning

He said this new method cuts a patient's recovery time in half.

When this technique isn't used, doctors have to cut through a person's jaw in order to remove a tumour.

Rigby said that's an extensive surgery that requires a fair amount of recovery time. 

Technique researched for 14 years

Radiation or chemotherapy can also be used to treat the tumours either alone or in concert with the surgery, but both have a range of harsh side effects.  

Researchers at Dalhousie started looking into this type of surgery in 2002. 

"It's certainly becoming more common. In Canada we have the most experience and probably the largest current volume of patients as well," said Rigby. 

Rigby said doctors are seeing a disturbing increase in the number of people with cancer at the back of the throat. 

"The tonsils and the back of the tongue, the incidents or the rate of cancer is actually increasing and that's because of this HPV-associated cancer, that's increased about 200 per cent over the last 20 years." 

150 strains of HPV

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is one of the most commonly sexually transmitted infections and it can sometimes lead to people developing cancer. 

There are 150 types of HPV, according to Rigby, only about 15 of which cause cancer. 

"Cells have the ability to heal themselves when they notice that something's wrong and the virus produces a protein that takes that down, so the cell can't regulate itself anymore," he said. 

"Those changes generally add up. It can take a while for that to happen, for it to become a cancer."   

Doctors believe it can take 10 to 15 years after someone contracts the virus for cancer to develop.

It's not clear how the virus ends up in the throat. Rigby said sexual contact is a risk factor, but there's still a risk of getting the virus even without sexual contact.  

It's not all doom and gloom. Rigby said people contract HPV and manage to get rid of the infection before it causes cancer. Many people's bodies destroy the virus in seven to 18 months.  


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