Treatments

There are usually several treatment options for head and neck cancers. It is important to discuss these with your specialists and often patients will seek the opinion of a surgical specialist and an oncologist before deciding on a particular treatment pathway.

Surgery is one of the most common forms of treatment. The extent of any surgery will be dependent on the stage of the cancer – if the cancer has spread, the surgery will be more extensive and may involve the removal of some lymph nodes in the neck.

Radiotherapy is a form of x-ray treatment and is used either on its own, or combined with chemotherapy. Radiotherapy can be used as definitive treatment or used after surgery to eliminate any remaining cancer cells (adjuvant).

Chemotherapy (drug treatment) is another effective treatment for head and neck cancers. Chemotherapy is usually used either before or during radiotherapy to treat head and neck cancers. Newer chemotherapy agents such as monoclonal antibody therapy are being developed for use in conjunction with radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

The team of doctors and nurses looking after you will plan your treatment based on your age, health and the type of tumour you have. This means that patients with the same type of cancer might have different treatment plans.

Radiotherapy

Small tumours in the head and neck region may be successfully treated with radiotherapy alone. Radiotherapy is also often given after surgery to destroy any cancer cells left behind. Radiotherapy helps stop the cancer from coming back.

The main side-effects of radiotherapy are sore mouth and throat, dry and sore skin, dry mouth, taste changes, hoarse voice. Swallowing may become very painful towards the end of a course of radiotherapy. Men can permanently lose hair/beard on the areas of their throat being treated, however, the hair on your head will be unaffected.

You may find that your voice is weaker or you lose the ability to talk completely, although this is a temporary effect. Your mouth or throat may become dry and sore. It may become necessary for you to eat foods that are soft in texture or have a high water content. Your doctor will be able to prescribe painkillers, mouthwashes and saliva substitutes to help relieve these symptoms.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is treatment with anti-cancer drugs. It may be used to reduce the size of the tumour before surgery, which is called neo-adjuvant chemotherapy, or you may have chemotherapy after your surgery to help prevent the cancer from coming back.

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