Head and Neck Cancer


Out of all of the new cases of cancer to be diagnosed in the next year in the U.S., the American Cancer Society estimates that about three to five percent of those cases will be located in the head and neck region. The type of cancer developed and the origin of the cancer cells can vary, which makes personalized treatment a necessity since the response to various treatments can be different.



The symptoms that patients experience from head and neck cancer depend on various factors, such as the origin of their cancer, the type of cancer, the stage of the cancer, and even their personal overall health. Common symptoms of head and neck cancers include:


• Swelling of the head or neck

• A sore on the skin that does not heal

• Nasal obstruction or congestion

• Sore throat

• Difficulty Breathing, Chewing, Or Swallowing

• Loss of Teeth

• Fatigue

• Sudden & Unexplained Weight Loss


These are only some common symptoms, but there are more that could manifest for someone with head and neck cancer. If you’re having issues that are focused around the head and neck region, schedule an appointment with your doctor for a screening.



Common treatments for head and neck cancers include radiation therapy, surgery, and in some cases, both are used in conjunction with each other to improve the chance of curing the patient’s cancer. The ideal type of treatment for a patient depends on the type of cancer they have, the size and stage of their cancer, the origin of the cancer, and their overall health. That’s why patients with head and neck cancers are given personalized treatment plans that will cater to their individual needs, improving the effectiveness of treatment.


Radiation Therapy For Head & Neck Cancers

Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses targeted radiation to kill cancer cells. When exposed to radiation, the cancer cells become damaged and lose their ability to multiply, hindering the cancer from spreading and eventually killing off the affected cells. While healthy tissue and cells may be affected by the radiation, they have the ability to rapidly repair themselves, while the cancer cells do not.


There are two main types of radiation therapy that can be used for treating head and neck cancers, which are:


• External Beam Radiation Therapy – a non-invasive procedure that uses a machine that directs targeted beams of radiation at the tumor.

• Internal Radiation Therapy (Brachytherapy) – A small surgical procedure places a small amount of material that emits radiation next to the tumor, providing precise, targeted treatment.


To learn more about these specific types of radiation therapy, visit our Radiation Therapy page.


Surgical Treatment For Head & Neck Cancers

To remove a tumor from the neck or head, your surgeon will first perform a biopsy on the affected area to assess the stage of cancer and how much it has spread. If your doctor determines that surgery is the ideal treatment for cancer, you will move forward with the procedure. During the surgery, the surgeon will usually be able to completely remove the entire tumor with a small amount of surrounding healthy tissue. In some cases, the lymph nodes in the neck may also need to be removed if the cancer is at a later stage or has spread.


Surgery can be combined with radiation therapy for some treatment plans in order to provide patients with more comprehensive and effective treatment.


Medical Therapy For Head & Neck Cancers

Medical therapy for treating head and neck cancer utilizes various medications to destroy cancer cells. The medication targets the cells, altering the cells to hinder their ability to grow and divide. A medical oncologist will conduct an evaluation on the patient first, to determine what types of medications are the best to use for effective treatment. There are two main types of medical cancer therapy, which include:


• Chemotherapy – this treatment typically uses one to three types of drugs that target cancer cells. The dosage levels and frequency of treatments for chemotherapy vary depending on the patient.

• Targeted Therapy focuses anti-cancer treatment on the molecular level, targeting factors such as the epidermal growth factor (EGFR) to combat the cancer cells. This treatment can be used in conjunction with radiation treatment.



A possible side effect that patients can experience during cancer treatment is dry mouth, which increases the risk of developing oral issues such as cavities or infection. Radiation therapy also can have a negative effect on the jaw bone, slowing its ability to heal itself. Because of these adverse effects and potential risks to the patient’s oral health, it is highly recommended to consult with a dentist and get all necessary dental work done before undergoing cancer treatment.



Head and Neck Cancer Alliance



Oral Cancer Foundation



Support for People with Oral and Head and Neck Cancer



Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association



Also see Helpful Links



Download a helpful brochure from www.rtanswers.org

*Content provided by the American Society for Radiation Oncology, www.rtanswers.org, and the American Cancer Society.