What to Know About Head/Neck Cancer
Here’s What You Need to Know About Treating Head and Neck Cancer
The term “head and neck cancer” is typically used to describe cancers that occur in the larynx or voice box, throat, sinuses, mouth or nose. Cancers in other areas of the head and neck, such as brain cancer, parathyroid cancer, eye cancer and esophageal cancer, aren’t usually included in this category because their diagnosis and treatment can be very different than for cancers of the mouth, throat, nose, sinuses and larynx. Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell cancers, meaning they start in the flat or squamous cells that form the surface layer of tissues in the head and neck.
Facing a cancer diagnosis is never easy. If you’ve been diagnosed with head or neck cancer, there are three main treatment options available: surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Usually, some combination of surgery and radiation therapy is recommended as the primary treatment, while chemotherapy is administered as a complementary treatment. However, your specific treatment modalities will depend on the stage of your cancer and its location.
Will Your Cancer Require Surgery?
Not all head and neck cancers require surgery. If your cancer is in its early stages and has not yet spread, you may be able to avoid surgery. At this early stage, most doctors recommend choosing either radiation therapy or surgery to remove the cancerous tumor.
When surgeons remove a cancerous tumor, they usually remove a large amount of the healthy tissue surrounding the tumor. This is done to prevent the recurrence of the cancer. However, when it comes to head and neck cancers, this type of surgical approach can mean losing a large portion of the oral and facial structure. You might need reconstructive surgery following your tumor excision, and even with reconstructive surgery, your appearance might be changed and you might suffer from some impairment of function.
Traditional radiation treatment for head and neck tumors is effective, but untargeted radiation therapy can cause damage to healthy tissues. Precision-targeted radiation therapy for head and neck tumors can kill the cancerous tissue, while minimizing damage to the healthy tissue surrounding the tumor.
What Can You Expect During Radiation Treatment?
Before radiation therapy, you will need to visit with a radiation oncologist who will take your medical history and perform a physical exam. You’ll also consult with other members of your treatment team and at this time, including a pathologist, radiologist, dentist and head and neck surgeon.
Treatment planning will begin with a CT scan or X-ray to help your treatment team plan where to direct the radiation. You will usually begin radiation therapy one or two days later and will receive treatments up to twice a day, five days a week for five to seven weeks. Your first couple of treatments may take one to two hours, but subsequent treatments will probably take less than an hour.
Side effects of radiation treatment usually appear at least two weeks after you begin treatment. The most common side effect of radiation treatment for head and neck cancer is a sore throat. New targeted radiation technologies can help protect your healthy tissues from damage and prevent side effects. Nevertheless, you should mention any side effects, pain or discomfort to your treatment team so you can receive the appropriate palliative care.
Radiation treatment alone is often effective for head and neck cancers that have not spread. The newest treatment modalities allow doctors to target the cancerous cells, leaving healthy cells intact. Medication can provide relief from any side effects.