Head & Neck Cancer Radiation Treatments

Head and neck cancers account for about 3% of all adult cancers in the United States.* Although most early-stage head and neck cancers have high cure rates, as many as two-thirds of the cases are diagnosed when the disease is in an advanced stage, treatment is difficult, and surgery is often not recommended. Therefore, a common form of treatment for head and neck cancers is radiation therapy, which is also known as radiotherapy. The radiation acts to interrupt the growth of these types of cancers, and in some cases remove them.

Your treatment plan will depend on several factors, including the exact location of the tumor, the stage of the disease, and your age and general health. Although radiation therapy is often used by itself, it can also be used before surgery to help shrink the tumor, after surgery to target any remaining cancer cells, and at the same time as chemotherapy.

Head and neck cancers can originate in the following areas:

  • Oral cavity. Includes the lips, gums, front two-thirds of the tongue, the inside of the cheeks, the bottom of the mouth under the tongue, the hard palate at the top of the mouth, and the small area behind the wisdom teeth.
  • Salivary glands. The major salivary glands are in the bottom of the mouth and near the jawbone.
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses. The nasal cavity is the space inside the nose. The paranasal sinuses are small spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose.
  • Pharynx. The pharynx is a tube about five inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus (the tube that goes to the stomach) and the trachea (the tube that goes to the lungs). The pharynx has three parts: The nasopharynx (upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose), the oropharynx (middle part of the pharynx, and includes the back of the mouth, base of the tongue, and tonsils), and hypopharynx (the lower part of the pharynx).
  • Lymph nodes. These can be found in the upper part of the neck.

Cancers of the brain, eye, thyroid, and esophagus are not considered to be head and neck cancers, nor are cancers of the scalp, skin, muscles, and bones of the head and neck.

*Jemal A, Siegel R, Xu J, Ward E. Cancer statistics, 2010. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians2010; 60(5):277–300.