Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

head and neck cancer treatment

Head and neck cancer is a category that includes several individual types of cancer including:

  • Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer. This is your voice box (larynx) and lower part of the throat surrounding the larynx (hypopharynx).
  • Nasal cavity and sinus cavity cancer. The nasal cavity is the space just behind the nose where air passes on its way to the throat. The sinuses are the air-filled areas that surround the nasal cavity.
  • Oral cancer. The oral cavity includes the mouth and tongue.
  • Throat cancer. Also called oropharynx cancer, this includes the middle of the throat, from the tonsils to the tip of the voice box (larynx).
  • Salivary gland cancer. The salivary glands produce saliva in the mouth.

For some head and neck cancer patients, surgery and radiation therapy may be all that is needed for treatment. However, for those with a more advanced stage cancer other treatments including chemotherapy may be added by your cancer care team.

External Beam Radiation Therapy for Head and Neck Cancers

The primary form of radiation therapy for most head and neck cancers is external beam radiation. We typically use IMRT, intensity modulated radiation therapy, for head and neck cancers.

This is an advanced form of external beam radiation treatment that allows precise targeting of tumor cells with high energy beams of radiation. IMRT also allows the radiation oncologist to vary the intensity of some of the beams of radiation. By doing this, a maximum dose of radiation can be delivered to the tumor while minimizing the amount of radiation distributed to the surrounding healthy tissues.

Side effects of external beam radiation therapy will depend on factors such as the total dose of radiation, other cancer treatments that may also be underway and the patient’s overall health.

Common side effects of radiation therapy for head and neck cancer can include:

  • Changes in taste (dysgeusia)
  • Dry mouth (xerostomia)
  • Pain or swelling of the inside of the mouth (oral mucositis)
  • Sensitivity to hot or cold foods
  • Tooth decay even with careful dental care
  • Mouth sores and infections in the mouth
  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Fatigue
  • Less active thyroid gland
  • Hair loss
  • Red, dry, or peeling skin at the radiation site

Although most side effects go away on their own, some may last a long time or become permanent. Talk to your oncologist or radiation technician right away if you notice any side effects so steps can be taken to reduce or relieve them.