Possible Side Effects

Side effects, if they do occur, are limited to the area receiving treatment and can be minor or severe, depending on the size and location of the tumor, your general medical condition, and the treatment applied. Side effects are cumulative, which means they can develop over several weeks as the radiation accumulates in the tumor. Side effects are usually temporary and should subside shortly after treatment ends. You can ask your oncologist what you might expect from your specific treatment.

These are some common side effects of radiotherapy for head and neck cancer:

  • 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. If this prevents you from eating and drinking properly, a small feeding tube may be used during treatment.
  • Earaches.
  • Temporary hair loss on your head, neck and face.
  • Fatigue

The way foods taste and the amount of saliva you produce should improve after treatment ends. However, there is a possibility that foods may never taste exactly as they did before treatment, and your saliva may not return to its original level (a condition called xerostomia). Some people experience long-term swallowing problems (dysphagia). To help you adjust to these changes, your doctor may recommend rehabilitation that could include physical therapy, speech therapy, and dietary counseling. Patients who have been treated for cancer of the oral cavity may need reconstructive surgery to rebuild the bones and tissues of the mouth. In some cases, a prosthesis (an artificial dental and/or facial part) can be made to restore satisfactory swallowing and speech.