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Metastatic squamous neck cancer develops in squamous cells and eventually spreads to lymph nodes in the neck. Squamous cells are present in many different organs throughout the body, including the lungs, kidneys, skin, cervix and esophagus. When squamous cell cancer (carcinoma) develops in any of these organs, the cancerous cells can potentially spread to nearby lymph nodes, enter the lymphatic system and travel to distant areas of the body. If cancerous squamous cells settle in the tonsils, nasopharynx, base of the tongue or lymph nodes in the neck, the condition is known as metastatic squamous neck cancer.

Metastatic squamous neck cancer with an occult primary

In many cases, oncologists can determine the original (primary) type of cancer by removing a sample of abnormal cells from lymph nodes in the neck and examining the cells under a microscope. For instance, cervical cancer cells that have metastasized to the neck will typically have the same characteristics as the cancerous cells in the cervix.

Sometimes, however, oncologists can’t determine where the cancerous cells originated, in which case the patient is diagnosed with metastatic squamous neck cancer with an occult primary.

Treating squamous cell cancer in the neck

It’s important for oncologists to identify the primary cancer because this information can influence treatment. For instance, squamous cell cancers that start in the skin and spread to the neck are still treated as a form of skin cancer. Similarly, squamous cell cancers that originate in the esophagus and spread to the neck are still treated as esophageal cancer. When the primary cancer is unknown, however, oncologists may take a different approach to treatment based on what they know about a patient’s diagnosis, such as the number, size and location of the lymph nodes that contain cancerous cells.

At Moffitt Cancer Center, we offer a comprehensive range of treatments for metastatic squamous cell cancer in the neck, including:

  • Surgery to remove lymph nodes, the jugular vein and muscles or nerves that show signs of cancer
  • Radiation therapy to the head and neck
  • Chemotherapy medications

Sometimes, a combination of treatments is best. For instance, one common approach to treating metastatic squamous cell cancer is to administer chemotherapy and hyperfractionated radiation therapy at the same time. Some patients also choose to enroll in clinical trials to access the latest therapies before those options are widely available in other settings. At the same time, they can take pride in knowing that they are helping our oncologists gain valuable knowledge about the most effective ways to treat these complex tumors.

If you’ve been diagnosed with metastatic squamous neck cancer and would like to request an appointment with an oncologist in Moffitt’s Head and Neck Oncology Program, you can do so with or without a referral. Call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online.