Radiation Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer

Learn About Treatment Options for Head and Neck Cancer

Facts About Head & Neck Cancer

This year, about 65,000 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx and thyroid.

More than 25 percent of oral cancers occur in people who do not smoke or have other risk factors.

Risks for developing head and neck cancers include smoking or smokeless tobacco, alcohol use, and exposure to viruses such as human papilloma virus (HPV) and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)

Rates of head and neck cancer are nearly twice as high in men and are greatest in men over age 50.

Types Of Head And Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancers arise from the cells that make up the face, mouth and throat. Because cancers in different locations behave differently, treatment depends on the cancer type and extent. Some common locations include:

  • Nasal cavity/paranasal sinuses.
  • Nasopharynx.
  • Oral cavity (lips, gums, floor of mouth, oral tongue, cheek mucosa, hard palate, retromolar trigone).
  • Oropharynx (base of tongue, tonsils, soft palate, oropharyngeal wall).
  • Larynx (vocal cords and supraglottic larynx).
  • Hypopharynx (pyriform sinuses, post-cricoid area, posterior pharyngeal wall).
  • Salivary glands (parotid, submandibular, sublingual and minor salivary glands).
  • Thyroid.

Treatment For Head And Neck Cancer

Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on several factors, including the type of cancer, the size and stage, its location, and your overall health.

  • Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the mainstays of treating head and neck cancer.
  • For many head and neck cancers, combining two or three types of treatments may be most effective. That’s why it is important to talk with several cancer specialists about your care, including a surgeon, a radiation oncologist and a medical oncologist.
  • An important concept in treating head and neck cancer is organ preservation. Rather than relying on major surgery, an organ preservation approach first uses radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. This allows for a less extensive surgery and may even allow some patients to avoid surgery altogether.

External Beam Radiation Therapy

  • Radiation treatments are delivered in a series of daily sessions. Radiation treatments take only a few minutes, but each session takes about half an hour to get checked in, change clothes, get into position and receive the radiation. For some conditions, radiation is given twice a day, with a four to six hour gap between treatments.
  • Treatments are usually scheduled Monday through Friday, for five to eight weeks. However, your doctor may schedule your treatments more or less often depending on your cancer.
  • To help you keep still during treatment, your doctor may use a plastic head or shoulder mask. These devices are specially fitted for you and are painless to use.
  • 3-dimensional conformal radiotherapy (3D-CRT)combines multiple radiation treatment fields to deliver precise doses of radiation to the affected area. Tailoring each of the radiation beams to accurately focus on the patient’s tumor allows coverage of the cancer while at the same time keeping radiation away from nearby healthy tissue.
  • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)is a form of 3D-CRT that further modifies the radiation by varying the intensity of each radiation beam and is primarily utilized in the treatment of head and neck cancers. This technique allows a more precise delivery of radiation to the target while allowing for better sparring of non-target normal tissues.
  • Acute side effects of treatment vary by anatomical site but may include fatigue, skin irritation to include redness and peeling, dry mouth, taste changes, thickened secretions, facial hair loss, voice changes and generalized discomfort.

Have a question? Contact your local team today.