Head and Neck Cancer Treatment


Cancer that starts in the head and neck region typically are grouped together as the treatment options for each are very similar. These types of cancers include those of the oral cavity (lips, tongue, gums, inside lining of the mouth), the salivary glands (the area of the mouth that produces saliva that aids in swallowing), nasal cavity (including the sinuses), pharynx (a small tube that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus and trachea) and the larynx (commonly referred to as the voice box).

Approximately 39,000 new cases of head and neck cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year and are more common in men and women over the age of 50.1

Treatment options for head and neck cancers can include one or more of the following:

A common treatment for head and neck cancer is surgery to remove the area where the cancer is detected. Depending on the size of the tumor, part of the tongue, jaw, pharynx and palate also may be removed, which may affect the ability to talk, swallow or chew. In these cases, reconstructive surgery may be necessary to help rebuild the areas that were removed.
Radiation Therapy
Given internally or externally, radiation therapy is an option for very small tumors or people who can not tolerate surgery. It also can be used prior to surgery to try to shrink the tumor or used after to try to kill any remaining cancer cells in the surrounding area.
Chemotherapy for head and neck cancer is standard treatment option that can be given in combination with radiation therapy and/or after surgery. Because of the harsh nature of chemotherapy, it can cause pain and infection in the mouth and gums, resulting in dry mouth and/or changes in taste.
Targeted Therapy
A drug called Erbitux also can be given in combination with radiation or chemotherapy. It belongs to a class of drugs known as targeted therapies because it is designed to bind to epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) cells that are found on the surface of cancer cells. Since it is a targeted therapy, it may have less side effects than chemotherapy.


  1. National Cancer Institute, Head and Neck Cancer: Questions and Answers. Accessed on August 8, 2010.


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