Treatment Types

Treatment type: Surgery

If surgery is used for early stage head and neck cancer, it may be the only treatment modality needed and can be curative. Surgery can also be combined with other therapies; for example, surgery can be performed first, followed by radiation therapy.

The treatment goals associated with surgery include removing the entire tumor and keeping the nearby anatomic structures intact. A complication associated with extensive head and neck surgery is that it may be necessary to remove bones, such as part of the jaw, or even entire structures, such as the external ear. Your doctor is required to clearly state what will happen during your surgery, so you will know what to expect. A concern that many patients have is whether a surgical procedure will impact their appearance or ability to eat or speak. Your health care team will use many strategies to retain both form and function, but it may require rehabilitation several months after treatment.

Treatment type: Radiation Therapy

If radiation therapy is used for early stage head and neck cancer, it may be the only treatment needed and can often be curative. Radiation therapy may also be used sequentially (e.g., after surgery) or concurrently with chemotherapy (chemoradiation).

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays that disrupt the DNA of targeted cells and induce cell death, which then decreases the size of the tumor. To optimally deliver the high-energy rays to the site of the tumor yet protect surrounding tissues, radiation planning is performed before the radiation procedure; basically, imaging of the tumor site is mapped while the patient is positioned in the same manner as the upcoming treatment. Then, during radiation therapy treatment, the patient is carefully positioned in the same place and the beams deliver radiation therapy to the tumor.

Radiation therapy can have the following side effects:

  • Inflammation of the membranes lining the mouth (mucositis); approximately 50 percent of patients who are administered radiation therapy develop this symptom at the time of treatment, and it can cause pain and interfere with eating and/or swallowing
  • Alteration in taste
  • Decreased salivation (xerostomia)
  • Changes in voice (e.g., hoarse voice)
  • Difficulty opening the mouth (trismus)
  • Cavities, which are likely due to decreased salivation
  • Fatigue, experienced by 70 to 80 percent of patients

Treatment type: chemoradiation therapy

Chemoradiation therapy may need to be used following surgery. Alternatively, it may be used as the initial treatment for patients with more advanced head and neck cancer.

Chemoradiation therapy can have the following side effects:

  • Inflammation of the membranes lining the mouth, or mucositis; this symptom interferes with eating or swallowing
  • Decreased salivation
  • Fatigue, reported by 70 to 80 percent of patients
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
Obviously, you want to get the cancer out of you, but it’s important not to just jump on the first options out there.Tony L. (oral cancer survivor)

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