How a physician decides to treat a particular case of head and neck cancer depends on the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread. There are many treatment options for head and neck cancer, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
- Surgery to remove the tumor and affected tissues. Depending on the location of the cancer, surgery may remove the vocal cords, larynx (voice box), thyroid gland, lymph nodes, and tissue in the lips or mouth. Surgery can be performed with a scalpel or laser beam. It also can be done robotically for greater precision. Side effects with surgery include swelling and a change in your ability to chew, swallow, or talk.
- Radiation uses high-dose x-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation can either be delivered from outside the body (external radiation) or from inside the body (internal radiation) using radioactive needles, seeds, or catheters. Because radiation will also damage the tissues surrounding the tumor, side effects can include redness or irritation, dry mouth, hair loss, nausea, and changes in taste.
- Chemotherapy is medication given through a vein or by mouth that kills cancer cells throughout the body. Because it also destroys healthy cells, chemotherapy can have side effects such as increased risk of infection, hair loss, and anemia.
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Sometimes treatments are combined. For example, radiation may be given to shrink the tumor before surgery. Chemotherapy may be given after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that remain. New treatments are continually being developed to combat head and neck cancers. They include:
- Cetumixab. This therapy is called a monoclonal antibody. It attaches to and blocks a protein called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), which may cause cancer cells to grow more aggressively. When given with radiation therapy, cetumixab may prolong survival.
- Hyperthermia therapy. This treatment uses heat to kill cancer cells or to make the cells more responsive to radiation and chemotherapy.
- Isotretenoin. This drug belongs to a class of medications called retinoids. Although it is typically used to treat acne, researchers are studying whether it might also help prevent head and neck cancer from returning.
- Radiosensitizers. These drugs make tumor cells more sensitive to the effects of radiation, and may be used along with radiation therapy to improve its effectiveness.
The prognosis for head and neck cancers depends on the size of the tumor and whether/how far the cancer has spread. This will be determined using a staging system specific for the type of cancer. Cancers that are discovered and treated early as well as localized cancers typically have a better prognosis than those that have spread.