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How is head and neck cancer treated?

The first step in treating head and neck cancer is to determine the stage of cancer.

Stage I and II cancers are small and haven’t spread from their original location. They are usually curable.

Stage III and IV cancers have usually spread to nearby lymph nodes, and/or are large tumors. They usually require more complicated treatment and have a smaller chance of cure, but most are potentially curable. Tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, called metastatic tumors, are generally thought to be incurable, but may be treated to reduce symptoms.

The stage, along with your age, general health and location of the tumor, will determine your treatment plan.

The three main courses of treatment for head and neck cancers are radiation therapy, surgery and chemotherapy. Some patients may receive all three treatments.

  • Surgery: Surgeons may remove the tumor and a margin of surrounding healthy tissue. Lymph nodes in the neck may also be removed if it’s suspected that the cancer has spread. Surgery on the head and neck areas may change the patient’s appearance and ability to chew, talk and swallow. For these reasons, patients may require reconstructive surgery and speech therapy after surgery.
  • Radiation therapy: This involves the use of high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. This is done via a machine near the body. Radiation therapy can have side effects, such as sores or irritation in the treated area, difficulty in swallowing or tasting, loss of saliva, decreased appetite and nausea. Tell your provider of any side effects for guidance on how to best deal with them.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemo is the use of anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body. It’s more commonly used for advanced-stage head and neck cancers. Side effects include sores in the mouth, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, tiredness, rash, joint pain and hair loss. Talk to your provider about how to treat these side effects.

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