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How does radiation therapy treat head and neck cancer?

Marshall Posner, MD
Hematology & Oncology

Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, consists of using strategically aimed doses of radiation to kill cancer cells.  Performed by a specialist known as a radiation oncologist, radiation therapy destroys the cancer cells directly in its line of fire and also damages healthy cells within its aim. Because of this action on normal cells radiotherapy doses are limited and it cannot be used to treat large areas of the body. Its common acute side effects are:

  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite mouth sores local pain

There are also other possible side effects, each associated with whatever part of the head or neck is being treated. Many, however, go away after radiation treatment is completed. Medication can treat these side effects.

Radiation therapy treats head and neck cancer by delivering radiation - usually high-energy x-rays - to the tumor. This radiation kills the cancer cells. Most commonly, the radiation is produced outside the body and then directed at the appropriate body region. This is called external-beam radiation therapy. All cells in the path of the beam are affected, and when normal cells are destroyed, side effects occur. Other techniques are sometimes used to reduce the amount of damage to normal cells, such as intensity-modulated radiation therapy (which uses computer modeling to focus the external beam more directly to the tumor) and internal radiation (in which radiation comes from radioactive materials implanted in or near the cancer).

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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.