What Are Your Treatment Goals for Head and Neck Cancer?

Why understanding treatment goals is essential to making treatment decisions when living with head and neck cancer.

Understanding treatment goals for head and neck cancer helps you understand how treatments work and what to expect from treatment.

When diagnosed with any type of cancer, one of the first questions a person will ask will be, "What are my treatment options?"

"Head and neck cancer" refers to a group of cancers that occur in the head and neck region, which includes the mouth, throat, nose, sinuses, salivary glands, and lymph nodes. These types of cancer can affect various structures in the head and neck, including the oral cavity, larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), and nasal cavity.

Treatment options for head and neck cancers
Treatment for head and neck cancer will vary from one person to the next. When building a treatment plan for a head and neck cancer, a person and their healthcare team will need to consider many different factors, including where the cancer is located and the structures that are affected, as well as the size of the tumors, the composition of the cancerous cells, and the stage of the cancer. They will also need to consider a person’s age, overall health, preferences, and the potential risks and benefits associated with different treatment options.

Surgery to remove tumors and affected tissues, radiation therapy to destroy cancerous cells, and chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy medications can all be used in the treatment of head and neck cancers. In many cases, different treatments are used in combination. For example, chemotherapy paired with radiation therapy (chemoradiation), or chemotherapy drugs given along with immunotherapy (a medicine that helps the immune system identify and attack cancer cells).

What are your treatment goals?
Treatment goals are an important topic to discuss with your healthcare providers. Understanding treatment goals helps you understand how treatments work and what to expect from treatment. Different treatments aim to achieve different goals. Examples of treatment goals include:

  • Remove tumors and destroy cancerous cells. This can include treatments like surgery and radiation therapy to target specific tumors, as well as systemic therapies that act on cancerous cells throughout the body.
  • Preserve function. Preserving the function of structures in the head and neck region is an important treatment goal. This includes preserving a person's ability to speak, swallow, and breathe. Minimizing damage to structures in the head and neck region should be a priority during treatment.
  • Address and ease symptoms and side effects. Cancer in the head and neck can interfere with a person’s ability to eat and speak. Some cancers can also be painful. A treatment plan should address these symptoms, as well as any side effects caused by cancer treatments.
  • Prevent recurrence. Preventing the cancer from recurring is another important goal. This may involve regular follow-up appointments, surveillance tests, and adopting healthier lifestyle habits—including quitting smoking and other forms of tobacco use.

Understanding treatment goals is an important part of treating cancer. Ask your healthcare providers how a treatment works, what goal the treatment aims to achieve, and the ways that the treatment can impact your quality of life.

Remember, there is no single best treatment for head and neck cancer—only the treatment that is right for you at the right time.

Article sources open article sources

National Cancer Institute. Head and Neck Cancers.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Head and Neck Cancers.
American Cancer Society. Understanding Your Options and Making Treatment Decisions.
Yale Medicine. Head and Neck Cancer.
University of Rochester Medical Center. Head and Neck Cancer: Treatment Choices.
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. Immunotherapy for Head and Neck Cancer.
Wojciech Golusinski. Functional Organ Preservation Surgery in Head and Neck Cancer: Transoral Robotic Surgery and Beyond. Frontiers in Oncology, 2019. Vol. 9, No. 293.
American Cancer Society. Living as an Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer Survivor.

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