UA Cancer Biology graduate student travels ROCKy™ road toward a cure
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Credit: (Photo: Gaius J. Augustus)

The United States is in the midst of a head-and-neck cancer epidemic. Although survival rates are relatively high — after treatment with chemotherapy and radiation — survivors can suffer permanent loss of salivary function, potentially leading to decades of health problems and difficulties eating.

It is unknown why the salivary gland sometimes cannot heal after radiation damage, but Wen Yu “Amy” Wong, BS, a University of Arizona cancer biology graduate student, may have taken a step toward solving that riddle.

Radiation often comes with long-term or even permanent side effects. With a head-and-neck tumor in radiation’s crosshairs, the salivary gland might suffer collateral damage.

“When you get radiation therapy, you end up targeting your salivary glands as well,” Wong said. Losing the ability to salivate predisposes patients to oral complications and an overall decrease in their quality of life. “Salivary glands help you digest food, lubricate your mouth and fight against bacteria. After radiation, patients could choke on their food because they can’t swallow. They wake up in the middle of the night because their mouth is so dry. They often get cavities.”

Favorite foods may lose their flavor. “Saliva produces certain ions that help

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