July 9, 2014
By Dr. Rachel Tompa
Picture a family meal, or a coffee and chat with a friend. Envision how much of those scenarios – talking, listening, eating and communicating – relies on your face and mouth. Now imagine all of it dampened. You can’t talk. Your face doesn’t easily display emotion. Chewing and swallowing are difficult.
For many head and neck cancer patients, this is their reality, even if doctors are successful at wiping out their cancer. Dr. Eduardo Méndez is motivated to change the reality of head and neck cancer.
“It’s in a location that affects your appearance, it affects your ability to speak and to swallow, and those are all things that you need to interact with others. It can have an effect of shutting you down from the rest of society, where other tumors are sort of hidden from view,” said Méndez, an assistant member of Fred Hutch’s Clinical Research Division. “Even the treatment for it can have consequences that affect those very same things that the tumor was affecting – swallowing, speech, appearance.”
As a practicing head and neck cancer surgeon at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch’s treatment arm, Méndez is constantly reminded of the drive behind his research – to improve treatment options for patients by delivering on the promise of precision medicine.
His research group tracks subtle genetic abnormalities that may drive head and neck cancers or reveal why some tumors spread while others don’t. Using state-of-the-art techniques, he’s diving deeper than physical exams or imaging tests to uncover the molecular fingerprints of each patient’s tumor. What he learns could lead to novel targeted therapies as well as a more refined classification of tumor types. Such classification would allow doctors to better tailor patients’ treatments and, ultimately, treat head and neck cancers earlier and more precisely, sparing patients from the often damaging side effects of traditional treatments.
Méndez is also breaking new ground in the clinic, looking beyond his own research for ways to improve patient care. He is an expert in minimally invasive surgeries and in 2010 was the first in Washington state to perform robotic surgery for head and neck cancer. The robot threads a snake-like arm to the tumor through the patient’s mouth, meaning it often leaves more of the patient’s mouth and throat intact than traditional open surgery.
As Méndez’s research team pieces together the genetic puzzle that underlies head and neck cancer, he is also trying to help his patients sacrifice as little of themselves to their disease and its treatment as possible.
“When a patient walks into the clinic, that’s the first thing I’m looking at,” he said. “What would be the best approach to not only achieve a cure, but also preserve quality of life?”
Dr. Rachel Tompa, a staff writer at Fred Hutch, joined the Hutch in 2009 as an editor working with infectious disease researchers and has since written about topics ranging from nanotechnology to global health. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco, and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Reach her at email@example.com.