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How does surgery treat head and neck cancer?

Marshall Posner, MD
Hematology & Oncology
Cancer surgery is employed for a variety of objectives that include diagnosing cancer, eradicating or reducing tumor volume, and relieving symptoms. Surgery is frequently used in conjunction with other treatments including radiation therapy and chemotherapy, or when used singularly, surgery is an effective cancer treatments. The goal of surgery in the case of cancer can be either the complete removal of a  tumor or a pnear complete removal when combined with other treatments, or as a "clean-up hitter" after chemotherapy and radiotherapy have reduced a tumor size.  As well as being implemented in the removal of the primary tumor, surgery is often a necessary procedure to determine the extent of the disease and if it has spread to regional lymph nodes. Surgery is also used sometimes to control symptoms prior to curative surgery or as means of relieving symptoms in patients who cannot be cured. When used in this way it can be referred to as palliative treatment.

Surgery treats head and neck cancer by removing the tumor cells from the body. The surgeon usually tries to remove the entire tumor, plus an area of normal cells around it. This area of normal cells is often called the margin and the goal of surgery is to have "negative margins," meaning that there are no cancer cells in the margins. If the margins are not negative, an adequate area of surrounding normal tissue has not been removed, which increases the possibility of cancer cells remaining in the body. Radiation therapy or chemotherapy is often administered in this situation in an attempt to destroy any remaining tumor cells. Removing the lymph nodes in the neck by a procedure called lymph node dissection may also be performed if the doctors think there is a significant possibility that the tumor has spread to these nodes.

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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.