The Italian, who works at the Cancer Institute of Milan, a point of reference in the world scientific community: has contributed in an exceptional way to advances in knowledge and therapies for these types of cancer
Italian and a woman the winner of the most prestigious award awarded during the congress of the European Society for Medical Oncology (Esmo), which this year takes place from 16 to 21 September in virtual form, is one of the most important events in the world for those dealing with cancer. The coveted recognition, conferred annually to a member of the cancer community who has distinguished himself for particular merits at European and global level, goes to Lisa Licitra, Director of Head and Neck Cancer Medical Oncology at the IRCCS National Cancer Institute Foundation in Milan and associate professor at the Department of Oncology and Hemato-Oncology of the Milanese University, from 2019 also appointed scientific director of the National Center for Oncological Hadrontherapy (Cnao) of Pavia. For years Lisa Licitra a point of reference for the global scientific community with regard to head and neck neoplasms and, as stated in the reasons for the award, it has both contributed in an exceptional way to the progress in the knowledge and therapies of these types of tumors, and stimulated debate with other oncologist colleagues. Furthermore, he mentored young specialists around the world and demonstrated how the integration of various doctors and different technologies is essential to improve cancer care. Each year in Italy approx 10 thousand people are diagnosed with head and neck cancer, a group of malignant neoplasms that can affect the upper aerodigestive tract (mouth, tongue, lips, throat, larynx, and organ of the voice), salivary glands, nasal passages and sinuses paranasal.
Professor Licitra, when you started studying and then working there was little talk about these forms of cancer: have things changed today? Have the cases grown?
There have always been head and neck cancers, but those linked to the Papillomavirus (HPV) are on the rise, for which there is a vaccine for today. Many years ago there were no useful drugs, today we have more therapies, but still little compared to what is available for other cancers. Therapies (surgery, radiotherapy and drugs) have evolved with overall improved results, so we are finally talking about more.
In most patients the disease is discovered late, at an advanced stage, when therapies need to be more invasive and the chances of recovery are less. It is mainly the fault of the fact that these types of cancer, as demonstrated by several international surveys, are little known and symptoms are underestimated. Ulcerations in the mouth, difficulty in swallowing, sore throat or earache, persistent hoarseness, swelling of the neck: if one or more of these symptoms persist for more than 15-20 days it is good to talk to a doctor – Licitra warns -. Without being too alarmed, because it is often simple inflammatory pathologies, but they could also be initial indicators of the presence of a neoplasm which unfortunately still today in four out of ten cases it is diagnosed at an advanced stage, when it is more difficult to cure. While, if discovered in time, nearly nine out of ten sick people could recover. And don’t forget that in 85% of patients about the disease due to smoking.
What progress should we expect in the coming years for head and neck cancers?
If I had to bet I would bet everything on integration, which has always been at the center of my strategy – replies Licitra -. Not only with regard to a multidisciplinary team, made up of several specialists, but also with regard to new technologies (such as hadrontherapy, available only in six countries in the world, including Italy and reimbursed by the NHS, today indicated only for some specific types of cancer), to artificial intelligence to analyze big data and to molecular biology, because today analyzing the DNA of the individual patient’s tumor can be determined by know the mutations and, based on those, establish the most effective cure. To truly achieve precision oncology it is essential to combine all these aspects.
How difficult was it to make your way as a woman in oncology research and clinic?
For what I had to do, which is to enter a field unknown to medical oncologists to integrate my knowledge about drugs with the much more solid knowledge about the disease, I must say that perhaps I have been, on the contrary, an advantage. In reality, the authority of the knowledge of the disease counts and this gender neutral. Having said that, the surgical world is predominantly male and I consider my greatest professional success to have managed to become head of the Head and Neck Unit at the Tumor Institute of Milan. Certainly it would take a few more women, at least to feel less alone.
September 15, 2021 (change September 15, 2021 | 18:58)