Radiation therapy for head and neck cancers
Also known as radiotherapy, this treatment uses a controlled dose of radiation to kill or damage cancer cells. For head and neck cancer, the radiation is usually in the form of x-ray beams that come from a machine outside the body. This is called external beam radiation therapy (EBRT), and it is often delivered using a technique called intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). This technique targets the radiation precisely to the cancer, which reduces treatment time and causes as little harm as possible to nearby healthy tissue.
Learn more about:
- Radiation therapy as the main treatment
- Radiation therapy after surgery
- External beam radiation therapy
- Side effects of radiation therapy
- Osteoradionecrosis (ORN)
- Video: What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy as the main treatment
For some pharyngeal and laryngeal cancers, radiation therapy will be the main treatment, with the aim of destroying the cancer while maintaining normal speech, swallowing and breathing. Sometimes chemotherapy will also be used to make the radiation work better (chemoradiation).
Radiation therapy after surgery
Radiation therapy is often used after surgery for head and neck cancers. This is known as adjuvant treatment. The aim is to destroy any remaining cancer cells and reduce the chance of the cancer coming back. You will probably start radiation therapy as soon as your wounds have healed and you’ve recovered your strength, which should be within six weeks. Adjuvant radiation therapy is sometimes given together with chemotherapy (chemoradiation).
Before radiation therapy begins, you will meet with the radiation oncologist to work out whether radiation therapy is right for you. You will then have a planning session with a CT scan to help show the exact area that needs to receive the radiation. At the planning session, you will also be fitted for a plastic mask called an immobilisation mask. You will wear this at each treatment session.
For more on this, see Radiation therapy.
Video: What is radiation therapy?
Watch this short video to learn more about radiation therapy.
Podcast: Making Treatment Decisions
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.
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