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. The radiation is targeted at the cancer, and treatment is carefully planned to do as little harm as possible to healthy body tissue near the cancer. Radiation therapy can be given externally or internally, but for head and neck cancers it is usually given externally.
Radiation therapy can be used on its own as the main treatment for pharyngeal and laryngeal cancers, especially to preserve important functions such as speech, swallowing and breathing.
When radiation therapy is used after surgery (adjuvant treatment), the aim is to eliminate any cancer cells that may not have been removed during surgery 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, usually within six weeks. Adjuvant radiation therapy is sometimes given together with chemotherapy (chemoradiation). This is because chemotherapy makes cancer cells more sensitive to radiation.
Learn more about:
- External beam radiation therapy
- Side effects of radiation therapy
- Osteoradionecrosis (ORN)
- Video: What is radiation therapy?
Video: What is radiation therapy?
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
A/Prof David Wiesenfeld, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Director, Head and Neck Tumour Stream, The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre at Melbourne Health, VIC; Alan Bradbury, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Senior Clinical and Health Psychologist, John Hunter Hospital, NSW; Dr Madhavi Chilkuri, Radiation Oncologist, Townsville Cancer Centre, The Townsville Hospital, QLD; Jedda Clune, Senior Dietitian (Head and Neck Cancer), Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Dr Fiona Day, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Senior Lecturer, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Dr Ben Dixon, ENT, Head and Neck Surgeon, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; Emma Hair, Senior Social Worker, St George Hospital, NSW; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kara Hutchinson, Head and Neck Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Julia Maclean, Speech Pathologist, St George Hospital, NSW; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Andrea Wong, Physiotherapist, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Coping with cancer?
Speak to a qualified health professional someone who has been there, support groups & forum
Need legal and financial assistance?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment
Work and cancer
Information for employees, employers and workplaces dealing with cancer