10 Important Facts About Head and Neck Cancer Treatment Options

by Rachel Zohn Health Writer

Our voices and facial expressions are critical to how we communicate and express ourselves, while our mouths, tongues, and throats enable us to eat and enjoy food. Cancers that begin in these areas are of special concern because it can impact these functions. Therapies for head and neck cancers must take into account how to best preserve these elements while treating the cancer. Read on to learn more about head and neck cancer treatment options.

Anatomy of the sinuses.

Head and Neck Cancer vs. Other Cancers

Head and neck cancers usually begin in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck, such as in the nose, mouth and throat. Cancer can also begin in the salivary glands. Other types of cancers can be located in this area of the body, including brain tumors, eye cancer, thyroid cancer or esophageal cancers. However, diagnoses and treatment of these cancers differ from those for head and neck cancer.

Man getting radiation therapy for cancer treatment.

Primary Treatment Options

The course of treatment depends on several factors, including the cancer site, if it has spread, and the cancer type. Treatment for head and neck cancer usually involves radiation therapy or surgery and sometimes chemotherapy. There are also new immunotherapies that are effective for some cancers. When planning treatment, doctors must consider how to manage symptoms and side effects that affect your quality of life.

Doctor checking a patient's throat.

Treatment Depends on Where the Cancer Originates

Head and neck cancers are categorized by the area in which they begin. These areas may include the oral cavity (the lips, tongue, gums, inside of cheeks), the throat, the larynx or voice box, the paranasal sinuses (the hallow spaces behind and surrounding the nose), and the nasal cavity (inside the nose itself). Some areas are difficult to perform surgery on or are be better suited for other therapies.

HPV written on a doctor's clipboard.

Two Distinct Types of Squamous Cell Carcinoma

There are two different types of squamous cell carcinoma that commonly cause head and neck cancers. One is related to the human papilloma virus (HPV). The other is an HPV-negative cancer that is often related to tobacco exposure. Each type will behave and react differently to therapies and treatments.

Surgical team operating on a patient.

Early Stage Treatment vs. Advanced Stage

Head and neck cancer is considered highly treatable when caught at an early stage. New therapies are being developed that are effective for patients in advanced stages. People with early-stage cancer are often treated with radiation therapy or surgery. These treatments don't affect other areas of the body. Later-stage cancer may be treated with chemotherapy or immunotherapy.

Cancer cell immunotherapy research.

Immunotherapy Offers Hope for Advanced Head and Neck Cancer

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first wave of immunotherapy drugs, which work in several ways, including stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, stopping cancer from spreading and helping the immune system destroy cancer cells.

Woman getting chemotherapy treatment.

Chemotherapy vs. Targeted Therapy

Chemotherapy drugs affect cancer and healthy cells alike while targeted therapy drugs are more precise. Targeted therapy is designed to attack cancer cells specifically by blocking their ability to grow and spread. This treatment may involve tests to learn about the genetic makeup, composition and traits of the cancer tumors.

Doctor writing information on a medical chart.

Clinical Trials Lead to Breakthroughs in Treatment

Clinical trials study new approaches to treating people living with head and neck cancer to determine their effectiveness. One promising area of head and neck cancer clinical research is the study of immune checkpoint inhibitors, which enhance a person’s existing anti-cancer immune system responses.

Woman consulting her doctor about neck pain.

Setting Treatment Goals

The goal for early stage cancer is to completely eliminate the cancer from the person's body and restore normal functions. For those in which the cancer has spread beyond the original site, treatment may focus on lessening the symptoms versus curing the disease completely. In these cases, the goal is to preserve speaking, swallowing, and expression-related functions for as long as possible.

Man experiencing pain while swallowing.

Risks or Complications With Treatment

Common side effects from surgery include temporary or permanent loss of normal voice, impaired speech, and hearing loss. You may have difficulty chewing or swallowing and may require additional support for proper nutrition. Some people may have difficulty breathing and need to have a temporary tracheostomy (a surgical hole in the windpipe). Those who receive radiation or chemotherapy may have oral complications, including mouth sores, infections and tooth decay.

Selection of healthy foods.

What Happens After Treatment Ends?

Once active treatment is complete, your doctor will want to track your recovery and make sure the cancer hasn’t returned. You can expect follow-up care to include regular physical examines and medical tests. You may need to go through rehabilitation such as physical therapy for movement, or speech and swallowing therapy. It’s important to follow a nutritious diet and take care of your overall health and well-being.

Rachel Zohn
Meet Our Writer
Rachel Zohn

Rachel Zohn is a mom, a wife, and a freelance writer who is striving to find the best way to juggle it all and maintain a sense of humor. She is a former newspaper reporter with a deep interest in writing about all things related to health, wellness and the human body. She enjoys writing about various health topics, including skin conditions such as eczema, different types of cancer and seasonal allergies.