Patients with aggressive head and neck cancers have today received welcome news of a breakthrough in the treatment of their condition.  

Scientists in the US have been using immunotherapy drugs in an attempt to turn on the patient’s own immune system to fight these cancers. Trial results coming out of a US cancer conference suggest the treatment works better than standard chemotherapy. 

It has been reported that in the trial, 240 patients with head and neck cancer were given immunotherapy, while another 121 were given standard chemotherapy. 12 months later 36% of patients treated with immunotherapy were still alive compared with 17% of those on chemotherapy.

The immunotherapy drug in question, known as Nivolumab, is reported as significantly improving the survival rate of patients with these difficult-to-treat tumours. Interestingly, it is already available on the NHS for people with advanced skin cancer – although doctors have said that much more research is needed before offering it routinely to patients with other cancers.

In all types of cancer, immunotherapy is seen as one of the most exciting developments in in years. While it cannot cure every cancer, mounting evidence suggests it can extend the amount and quality of life enjoyed by very ill patients.

Prof Kevin Harrington, from the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said the results were “a potential game changer” for head and neck cancer. 

He said: “Once it has relapsed or spread, head and neck cancer is extremely difficult to treat, with surgery and radiotherapy often impossible, so it’s very good news for patients that these interim results indicate we now have a new treatment that works, and can significantly extend life.”

Whilst this remarkable breakthrough in treatment is to be welcomed, it remains the case that early diagnosis is the biggest single factor in predicting survival. 

At Davies and Partners Solicitors we deal with new cases every week of delayed diagnosis of cancer. For the almost 10,000 patients a year in the UK who are diagnosed with a head or neck cancer (cancer of the mouth, lips, voice box, throat, nose, sinuses and salivary glands) early diagnosis remains their best bet.