There are a variety of treatment options that are available for head and neck cancer, and your medical team will develop an individualized care plan for your specific cancer type and location. The treatment for any person may depend on a number of factors including the location, type of cancer, stage of cancer, as well as a patient's overall health and personal preferences.
Here are common treatment options for head and neck cancer.
A surgeon will perform the physical removal of cancerous tumors and possibly lymph nodes. Depending on the type and extent of the surgery, this may be followed by a hospitalization for several days and you will receive specific information regarding surgery and post-operative restrictions that are individualized for you. In some cases, additional treatments like radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be required after surgery to improve the chances of long-term cure.
Radiation uses intense beams of light to kill cancer cells (and healthy cells) in a precise area. Radiation may be the main treatment for a head and neck cancer or it may be a part a larger treatment plan. For example, it may occur pre-surgery to shrink a tumor or it may occur a few weeks after surgery to kill remaining cancerous cells. Radiation is typically done once daily, five days per week for several weeks and lasts approximately 15 minutes per treatment session.
The radiation team is composed of a radiation oncologist, a radiation registered nurse, and radiation therapists. You will be seen by a radiation therapist each time you have a treatment. You will also see a radiation oncologist, who is responsible for your overall radiation program, regularly during your treatment to monitor your progress and to address any side effects you may have.
A CT “Sim” visit is a planning visit to allow for proper positioning and dosage of radiation. This allows you and the radiation team to plan for each treatment day. It may take up to two weeks between the “Sim” visit and treatments. You may be fitted for a thermoplastic mask to be worn during “Sim” visit and treatments. The mask will allow your head to be positioned properly during radiation treatment sessions.
Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer medications to kill cancer cells, shrink tumors, and reduce the likelihood of cancer spreading. Chemotherapy can be a main treatment as in the case of advanced cancer. Alternatively, chemotherapy can be given to make other treatments like radiation more effective.
Chemotherapy treatments are overseen by a medical oncologist. A nurse practitioner will meet with you to discuss chemotherapy medications and possible side effects for these medications before you receive treatment. Infusion chemotherapy is individualized depending on diagnosis and other factors.
During the chemotherapy treatment, your blood may be drawn regularly for lab work that helps your care team know that it is safe to proceed with treatment. The lab work will take approximately 30 minutes. After lab work is completed the pharmacy will prepare chemotherapy medications for you. Registered nurses will administer infusion treatments. These may occur through a surgically implanted port or through IV. Each treatment plan is different so length of each visit may vary.
Targeted therapy & immunotherapy
Newer treatment options are also available for head and neck cancer, including targeted therapy and immunotherapy. Targeted therapy uses drugs to block the growth and spread of cancer cells. The drugs enter your bloodstream and travel throughout your body to target specific biomarkers that help tumors grow and divide. Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy that uses targeted drugs to convince the body's immune system to recognize that there is something foreign in the body (cancer) and to attack the cells threatening it.
If you have questions about the treatment options for head and neck cancer, call askSARAH at (844) 482-4812 to speak to a nurse who is specially trained to help with your cancer questions or visit askSARAH.
Sources: American Cancer Society