Head and neck cancers treatment overview

Head and neck cancers are treated differently depending on their location and size. Surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy, or a combination of these treatments are used to treat the cancer.

Before recommending treatment, doctors determine how easy it is to access a tumour using surgery; the likely success of an operation; and whether surgery will cause major side effects. They weigh up the benefits and impacts of all the treatments, and also consider a person’s general health.


  • An advantage of surgery is that after the tissue is removed, it can be examined under a microscope to make sure all the tumour has been taken out and is surrounded by normal tissue (clear margins). This is done by a pathologist.
  • The tissue can also give information about the stage of the cancer which helps doctors decide on further treatment.
  • Surgery is generally the fastest treatment and can be repeated if the cancer comes back.
  • Recovery usually depends on how large the cancer is when diagnosed.

Radiotherapy and chemotherapy

  • Radiotherapy may be given on its own or after surgery with/without chemotherapy, if the cancer is more likely to recur without these treatments.
  • Usually, a course of radiotherapy can only be given once, and it takes about six weeks to recover.
  • See the Understanding Radiotherapy and Understanding Chemotherapy pages for more information.
  • Your medical team will help you decide what treatment to have.

How different cancers are treated

  • Oral cancer –  Cancers of the oral cavity are commonly treated with surgery, then radiotherapy if required. Chemotherapy is sometimes used in combination with these treatments.
  • Salivary gland cancer –  Surgery is done in most cases. This is usually followed by radiotherapy. Chemotherapy is not usually given unless the cancer has spread, and it may be offered as palliative treatment.
  • Pharyngeal cancer –  This is usually treated with surgery or radiotherapy. If radiotherapy does not destroy all the cancer cells or if the cancer comes back, surgery may be performed. If surgery is done first, radiotherapy may be used afterwards to destroy any remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy may also be offered, usually with radiotherapy.
  • Laryngeal cancer –  Where possible, early laryngeal cancer is treated with either laser surgery or radiotherapy. For larger cancers, radiotherapy is usually combined with chemotherapy (chemoradiation). For advanced cancer, surgery is only used if the cancer comes back or it’s not all killed by radiotherapy. Chemotherapy may be given first to ease the pressure on a person’s airway while chemoradiation is being planned. Radiotherapy (with or without chemotherapy) will be given after surgery to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back.
  • Nasal or paranasal sinus cancer –  These are commonly treated with surgery, followed by radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy.

Before treatment starts

Dental check-ups

Head and neck cancer treatment, particularly radiotherapy, can cause dental problems, but these can often be prevented.

Before starting cancer treatment you must see a dentist or oral medicine specialist for a thorough oral examination and to get an oral health care plan. The plan outlines if any dentistry work is needed to reduce the chance of future dental problems. A plan also helps you learn good oral health care before, during and after treatment.

The dentist will probably recommend that decayed or damaged teeth, and healthy teeth that will be affected by radiotherapy, are taken out. These teeth may be removed during cancer surgery or before radiotherapy.

Radiotherapy permanently affects tissue healing in the treatment area. In rare cases, it can cause scarring of the jaw, leading to the bone being exposed in  the mouth (osteoradionecrosis or ORN). ORN can cause problems if you later need a tooth extraction or surgery to the mouth or jaw.

  • Check if you are eligible to receive free or low cost public dental services provided by state and territory governments to Pensioner Concession Card and Health Care card holders.
  • Have regular six-monthly dental appointments  after your cancer treatment.

Palliative treatment

Palliative treatment helps to improve people’s quality of life by reducing symptoms of cancer without trying to cure the disease. It is not just for end-of-life care and can be used at different stages of cancer. Often treatment is concerned with pain relief and stopping the spread of cancer, but it also involves the management of other physical and emotional symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other medications.

Call the Helpline 13 11 20  for more information about palliative care, advanced cancer and cancer pain.

This information was last reviewed in June 2012

This information has been reviewed by: Dr Tim Iseli, ENT Surgeon, Royal Melbourne Hospital; Katrina Blyth, Senior Speech Pathologist, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW; Dr David Boadle, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Royal Hobart Hospital; Geoffrey Booth, Consumer; Teresa Brown, Team Leader, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital; Marty Doyle, Co-founder and Facilitator, Head and Neck Cancer Support Group, Brisbane; Dr Peter Foltyn, Dental Department, St Vincent’s Hospital, NSW; Noelene Hunt, Consumer; Dr Michael Jackson, Director, Radiation Oncology Department, Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW; Len McDowall, Consumer; and Cancer Council SA Helpline Consultant.

View our editorial policy

Instructions for downloading and reading EPUB files

Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
  • open EPUB files directly from Mobile Safari and open them in iBooks, where they are saved automatically by downloading the EPUB from the website.

Need more help? Visit: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4059


To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
Need more information? Visit: http://www.kobo.com/help/koboaura/response/?id=3784&type=3

Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

Need more help? Visit: https://au.readerstore.sony.com/apps_and_devices/

Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=help_search_1-1?ie=UTF8&nodeId=200767340&qid=1395967989&sr=1-1
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit www.amazon.com/manageyourkindle, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
Need more help? Visit https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200375630

Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.