A new discovery when it comes to head and neck cancer could improve treatment options for patients.

Head and neck cancer is the fifth most common cancer in Canada.

“Head and neck cancer as a whole is becoming more and more of a problem, currently it’s about 5,000 to 6,000 Canadians per year," says Dr. Anthony Nichols of the  Lawson Health Research Institute.

Approximately 25 per cent of head and neck cancers are caused by the human papilloma virus, but smoking is the main cause and provokes the hardest form of this cancer to treat.

Nichols says, “If they smoke they do worse, their survival outcome becomes poorer.”

However, in a shocking discovery, after studying genomic analysis of head and neck cancer patients who smoke, Nichols says a genetic mutation called NSD1 was found.

“The patients who happen to have the cancer with this key gene actually did remarkably better than the patients that didn’t have it, so it’s actually a surprising finding that this subset of very heavy smokers within that noise there are some patients who did remarkably better in that group.”

Nichols says these findings could eventually improve treatment options for this sub-group of patients.

Currently treatments can have a negative impact on a patient's quality of life due to disfigurement, difficulty swallowing and speaking.

“There is a big interest in de-intensifying treatments - so using lower doses of radiation, using less chemotherapy or minimal invasive surgery on these patients because they do so well.”

The next steps in this study is to look at clinical trials with patients who have this specific gene.