Frequently Asked Questions
Head and Neck Cancer
- How is radiation therapy used to fight head and neck cancers?
- What are the side effects of radiation treatment for head and neck cancers?
- How long will I have to be in radiation treatment?
- Can I drive myself to and from treatment?
- Will I be alone in the treatment room?
- What position will I be in for treatment? Will I be able to see what's happening?
- Is radiation treatment painful or uncomfortable?
- What happens after treatment ends?
- How will I know treatment worked?
How is radiation therapy used to fight head and neck cancers?
Radiation damages the DNA in cancer cells and inhibits their ability to reproduce. When the damaged cancer cells attempt to divide and multiply, they die, which helps to stop the tumor growth. In some cases, the tumor may shrink. Normal cells, however, can usually recover from radiation damage more easily. You and your treatment team will discuss your options and what type of radiation might be appropriate for your particular case.
What are the side effects of radiation treatment for head and neck cancers?
Some possible side effects include 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, temporary hair loss on your head, neck and face, and fatigue. Side effects are usually limited to the area receiving treatment and can be minor or severe, depending on a number of factors. Many side effects effects are temporary and usually should subside shortly after treatment ends. See Possible Side Effects for more information. You should also talk to your radiation oncologist about what side effects you might experience during and after treatment.
How long will I have to be in radiation treatment?
Typically, if radiation therapy is used, treatment is delivered five days a week for four to six weeks. Radiation therapy sessions typically take 20 to 30 minutes including set-up time at the beginning of treatment, but over time it may only take 5-10 minutes in and out of the treatment room. If your radiation oncologist recommends radiosurgery as your treatment, you will have one to five treatment sessions, averaging about 20 minutes or more per session. Your clinical team will determine the type of treatment appropriate for you and the number of sessions you'll need. To learn more about how radiation therapy and radiosurgery differ, see our Radiation Treatments overview page
Can I drive myself to and from treatment?
Depending on what kind of radiation technique is used to treat your cancer, your doctor may recommend that you bring someone along to your treatment sessions. However, many patients are able to drive themselves to and from treatmen
Will I be alone in the treatment room?
In most treatment facilities, if you are treated with external beam radiotherapy or radiosurgery, your team will position you for treatment, and then leave the room to control and monitor your treatment from a separate treatment console. They will be able to see and hear you at all times using video and audio equipment in the room.
What position will I be in for treatment? Will I be able to see what's happening?
Patients treated for brain tumors are typically positioned lying with their back on the treatment "couch." An immobilizing face mask may be placed over your face and fastened to the couch to help you remain still during treatment. Depending on what equipment is used for your treatment, other props or methods may be used to help you maintain your treatment position. While the beam is on, you will be able to watch the machine rotate around you, but the radiation beam itself is invisible.
Is radiation treatment painful or uncomfortable?
Similar to an x-ray, radiation beams are not visible and you cannot feel them. Some patients treated for brain tumors have difficulty adjusting to the immobilizing face mask, while others find that it becomes easier as the treatment progresses. Your treatment team will help make you comfortable for each session, and you can always speak to them (via microphones in the treatment room) if you are uncomfortable. Some patients do experience painful skin irritation as a result of the radiation post-treatment. If you do, your team can suggest ointments to take care of your skin
What happens after treatment ends?
Most doctors and cancer centers will discuss nutrition, exercise programs, stress reduction, and support groups with you to help during and after treatment. After your treatment ends, your doctor will recommend a schedule for periodic checkups to monitor the results. Typically, checkups are scheduled at six-month intervals. If symptoms or clinical circumstances suggest a recurrence of the cancer, diagnostic tests such as blood tests, ultrasound, CT scans, MRIs, chest x-ray (CXR), or a bone scan may be needed.
How will I know treatment worked?
Imaging scans will be repeated, usually a few weeks after treatment, to assess the response of your tumor. The general rule of thumb is that a cancer is considered to be in remission if you have no signs of the disease for three years after treatment is completed.