How Different Types of Head and Neck Cancers Are Treated

Treatment depends on they type of cancer you have and where it’s located.

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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.