Treatment depends on they type of cancer you have and where it’s located.
Head and neck cancers are not one type of cancer, but an umbrella term for a variety of cancers that can start in the face, neck, mouth, nasal cavity, voice box, and so on. "Treatment of head and neck cancer can vary, depending upon the site, the type of tumor, whether it's HPV-positive or not, and the staging of the tumor," says Mark Persky, MD, otolaryngologist and surgeon at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
In addition to the type of head and neck cancer you have, your age, the risk of side effects, and other health problems you may have may impact what treatment plan you and your doctor pursue.
Here are some of the treatment options your doctor may recommend to treat head and neck cancer:
Surgery can take out tissue affected by cancer or lymph nodes in the neck. Sometimes, this means needing to remove all or part of some organs like the tongue, voice box, or windpipe, according to the American Cancer Society. That said, maintaining the appearance and function of the area is considered essential.
Biologics alter substances produced by the tumor, which helps to shrink or even eliminate the tumor.
Targeted therapy is a newer type of cancer treatment made from immune proteins that help block the specific substance that helps cancer cells grow and multiply, causing them to shrink. Because targeted therapy drugs help attack specific substances on the surfaces of cancer cells, they are often more effective and precise than chemotherapy and other older types of cancer treatment.
Immunotherapy is another newer type of cancer treatment that helps the body’s own immune system fight the cancer. There are different types of immunotherapy, but the one typically used for head and neck cancers are checkpoint inhibitors, which help the body recognize cancer cells and turn on the immune response.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to attack cancer cells. Doctors may use it as the main treatment, before surgery to shrink the tumor, or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.
Chemotherapy uses drugs via IV or oral pills that spread through the bloodstream to kill rapidly dividing cells (which are often cancer cells but also includes some normal cells). Chemo is often given in conjunction with radiation therapy, an approach called chemoradiation.
Regardless of which treatment or combination of treatments are used, you will have follow-up appointments with your doctor for several years after treatments end. This helps keep an eye on your condition to make sure cancer doesn’t come back—and if it does, you’ll be able to catch it early and improve treatment outcomes.
Dr. Persky is an otolaryngologist and surgeon at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
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Treatment of head and neck cancer can
vary, depending upon the site, the type of
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tumor, whether it's HPV-positive or
not, and the staging of the tumor.
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And, basically, there are three forms of
treatment of almost all cancers: surgery,
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radiation therapy and forms of drugs
which could be traditional chemotherapy.
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There could be biologic therapy,
which is a form of drug therapy.
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And now, we have immunotherapy.
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So these are all advances
in the treatment of cancer.
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By and large, surgery is
the prime method of treatment for
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cancer of the oral cavity.
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And when you do surgery, especially
on the oral cavity or the head and
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neck, there are two things to consider.
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And that's the function of
the patient following the surgery,
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as well as the appearance of the patient.
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So those are all things to be considered,
to preserve that form and function.
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Well, radiation therapy is an ionizing
beam that can be coming from an external
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source, such as the great majority of
radiation therapy is administered,
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to try and target the tumor, or
potential tumor involvement, and try and
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avoid the radiation
exposure to normal tissues.
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In addition, there's been a marked
improvement in the effectiveness of
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drugs in the treatment of head and
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The traditional form of drug is the
chemotherapy, where the tumor is directly
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affected by the drug given, and
the drug goes everywhere in the body.
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So if there's any tumor cells beyond
the site of its origin, then hopefully,
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it's effective in controlling that.
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A second form of therapy is
something called biological therapy.
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The tumor produces certain substances, and
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these biologics can alter those
substances to decrease and, perhaps,
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even sometimes eliminate the tumor
by directly affecting it.
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And then, the third type of drug
therapy is the immunotherapy,
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where there's an effect on stimulating
the immune system of the body to
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combat the cancer cells,
often in a very effective way.
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Chemotherapy & targeted drugs for head & neck cancer. New York, NY: Perlmutter Cancer Center, NYU Langone Health. (Accessed on March 18, 2019 at https://nyulangone.org/conditions/head-neck-cancer/treatments/chemotherapy-targeted-drugs-for-head-neck-cancer.)
Head and neck cancers. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. (Accessed on March 18, 2019 at https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/head-neck-fact-sheet.)
If you have head or neck cancer. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2018. (Accessed on March 18, 2019 at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer/if-you-have-head-or-neck-cancer.html.)
Overview of the diagnosis and staging of head and neck cancer. Waltham, MA: UpToDate, 2019. (Accessed on March 18, 2019 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/overview-of-the-diagnosis-and-staging-of-head-and-neck-cancer.)Treating oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society. (Accessed on March 18, 2019 at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer/treating.html.)