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The term “head and neck cancer” refers to a variety of malignant tumors that can develop in or around the sinuses, nose, mouth, throat, and/or larynx. Today, options for treatment, including radiation therapy, continue to advance. Throughout your cancer journey—from screening and diagnosis to treatment and survivorship—your medical care team is with you every step of the way.

Head and neck cancers can originate in the oral cavity, salivary glands, nasal cavity, pharynx, and lymph nodes.

Head and neck cancer is the seventh most common cancer in the world, with more than 1 million new diagnoses reported annually.

Men are diagnosed with head and neck cancer significantly more than women.

Head and neck cancer

Your treatment plan

There are a variety of treatment options for head and neck cancer. Your treatment plan will depend on several factors, including the type, location and stage of the disease, your age and general health, and whether the cancer is new or recurrent.

Many patients are treated with various combinations of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy.

Radiation therapy is a common form of treatment. It may be used as the first line of treatment, either with or without chemotherapy if surgery is not indicated. It is also used following surgery to treat any cancer cells that remain, therefore reducing the risk of cancer recurrence.

Head and neck cancer

Radiation therapy treatment techniques

There are different types of radiation therapy techniques that may be useful for head and neck cancer treatment, including:

Head and neck cancer

Possible side effects

Side effects are cumulative, which means they can develop over several weeks or months as the body responds to radiation. You can ask your radiation oncologist what you might expect from your specific treatment. These are some common side effects of head and neck cancer radiation therapy:

  • Fatigue
  • Skin irritation
  • Redness of the skin near the treatment area
  • Sore throat and mouth
  • Dry mouth and/or thickened saliva
  • Changes in taste and/or speech
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Earaches
  • Hair loss

Head and neck cancer

Your EBRT treatment journey

When it comes to preparing for your head and neck cancer treatment, knowledge is power. That includes knowing what to expect during your treatment journey so you can move forward one informed and empowered step at a time. Here is a brief outline of what you can expect during external beam radiation treatment. The details of some steps may differ, depending on your particular case.

Step 1: Consultation

First, you'll meet with your radiation oncologist to discuss what type of radiation treatment options are recommended for your specific case, and make a decision together about your treatment.

Step 2: Simulation

As part of your treatment planning, the exact area of the tumor must first be determined. This is usually done using a CT scan, short for computed tomography, providing a detailed 3-D image of the treatment area using x-rays.

For head and neck cancer, it is very important that you are correctly positioned for treatment. To that end, an immobilization device or customized face mask may be used to help keep your head still while you are lying on the treatment couch.

Step 3: Treatment planning

After simulation is complete, your radiation oncologist will develop your personalized treatment plan, taking into account the location and type of cancer you have, your medical history, lab tests, and other factors—all to determine your best course of treatment. Typical treatment with radiation therapy will require you to come for treatment five days a week.

Step 4: Positioning for treatment

On your treatment days, your radiation therapist will position you on the radiation machine’s treatment couch. The couch will be adjusted so the radiation laser targets the small mark that was put on your skin during your simulation, ensuring you are properly aligned for treatment. If a face mask or other device was created for you during the imaging process, it will be placed on you or under you at this time.

Step 5: Start of treatment

The radiation is delivered by a machine called a linear accelerator, or linac. Most linacs have a gantry, which will move around you to deliver the radiation. You won’t see, hear, feel or smell the beam. Each treatment session typically takes approximately 15 minutes. Your first treatment may be a little longer.

Step 6: Post-treatment and follow-up care

Every patient is different, but most patients can continue daily activities during treatment, despite side effects such as fatigue. After your final treatment, your radiation oncologist will schedule periodic follow-up appointments to monitor your progress and the results of your treatment.

Head and neck cancer

Helpful resources for head and neck cancer

Questions to ask

Some important things you may want to find out from your doctor before undergoing treatment for head and neck cancer.