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How are head and neck cancers treated?

John H. Lee, MD
Ear, Nose & Throat (Otolaryngology)
Managing head and neck cancer often starts with a surgeon – but it needn’t end there. Check out this video with Dr. John Lee of Sanford Health to learn how having a team of experts, including a nutritionist and a physical therapist, can help increase survival rates for head and neck cancers by as much as 20 percent.

The treatment of head and neck cancers depends on the location of the tumor and the extent of spread to surrounding tissues, lymph nodes, and distant areas. The three main options are surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, which may be used alone or in combination. Cancer in its early stages is more often treated with single therapy, whereas combination therapy is more common for cancers that have spread to lymph nodes and distant areas. Chemotherapy is used less often for head and neck cancers than surgery or radiation therapy.

The treatment plan for an individual patient depends on a number of factors, including the exact location of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and the person's age and general health.

Surgery: The surgeon may remove the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it. Lymph nodes in the neck may also be removed (lymph node dissection), if the doctor suspects that the cancer has spread. Surgery may be followed by radiation treatment.

Head and neck surgery often changes the patient's ability to chew, swallow, or talk. The patient may look different after surgery, and the face and neck may be swollen. The swelling usually goes away within a few weeks. However, lymph node dissection can slow the flow of lymph, which may collect in the tissues; this swelling may last for a long time. After a laryngectomy (surgery to remove the larynx), parts of the neck and throat may feel numb because nerves have been cut. If lymph nodes in the neck were removed, the shoulder and neck may be weak and stiff.

Radiation therapy: This treatment involves the use of high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body. It can also come from radioactive materials placed directly into or near the area where the cancer cells are found. In addition to its desired effect on cancer cells, radiation therapy often causes unwanted effects. Patients who receive radiation to the head and neck may experience redness, irritation, and sores in the mouth; a dry mouth or thickened saliva; difficulty in swallowing; changes in taste; or nausea.

Chemotherapy: This treatment is used to kill cancer cells throughout the body. The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the drugs that are given. In general, anticancer drugs affect rapidly growing cells, including blood cells that fight infection, cells that line the mouth and the digestive tract, and cells in hair follicles. As a result, patients may have side effects such as lower resistance to infection, sores in the mouth and on the lips, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and hair loss.

This answer is based on source information from National Cancer Institute.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.