Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

Head and neck cancer includes any cancer arising in the nasal cavity, sinuses, lips, mouth, throat, salivary glands or thyroid gland. Tobacco and alcohol use are the leading cause of mouth and throat cancer. However, there has been a recent rise in the incidence of oropharyngeal (base of tongue and tonsil) carcinoma in younger adults related to human papillomavirus, which is a highly prevalent sexually transmitted viral infection.

Oral head and neck cancer is the 6th most common form of cancer worldwide
Over 10,000 oral head and neck cancers per year can be attributed to HPV.
Head and neck cancers make up 4% of all diagnosed cancers in the US
Over 13,000 men and women will die of head and neck cancer this year

What To Know

Human papillomavirus is a known risk factor in developing head and neck cancer, specifically oropharyngeal cancers. There are over 100 types of HPV, but HPV types 16 and 18 are most often associated with oropharyngeal cancers. The HPV vaccine, Gardasil, may help reduce the risk of head and neck cancer in the future.


Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers often vary from person to person, and can be present in the nasal cavity, lips, mouth or throat. If you have noticed a sore or lump that does not heal, schedule an appointment with your doctor for an evaluation.

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Throat pain
  • Lump in neck
  • Voice hoarseness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Jaw pain
  • Ear pain

Diagnosing Head and Neck Cancer

If you are experiencing symptoms of head and neck cancer, it’s important to consult with a medical professional. Your doctor will review your medical history, conduct a physical exam and perform tests to determine if you have head and neck cancer. The tests conducted often depend on symptoms present, and allow doctors to examine a sample of tissue to determine if cancer is present.

If it is confirmed that a person has head and neck cancer, the next step is understanding the stage. X-rays and additional testing can help a doctor determine if the cancer has spread, and come up with the best treatment plan for you.

Potential Side Effects

Despite these advanced techniques, radiation to the head and neck region is often a difficult treatment. Symptoms are often exacerbated with the addition of chemotherapy. Many patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation to the head and neck region may require an evaluation for swallowing dysfunction. Often times patients may require placement of a temporary feeding tube to ensure adequate nutritional and hydration support through the course of treatment and during the immediate post-treatment recovery period (the first few weeks to months after radiation is completed). Your physician may recommend that you be evaluated by a speech and swallowing therapist to assess your ability to swallow, and your potential need for a feeding tube.

Patients undergoing radiation therapy usually need a dental evaluation before proceeding with treatment as radiation may cause patients to have a dry mouth, and this can increase the risk of cavities. Additionally, if the jaw bone receives high doses of radiation it can increase the risk of subsequent dental surgeries. Thus, if there are teeth that need dental attention it is ideal to have these issues addressed before starting radiation when possible.

Physical therapists may play an important role in the management of patients with head and neck cancer. Side effects of therapy that therapists might assist with include: lymphedema or swelling of the neck, trismus (difficulty opening your mouth widely), or problems with the neck and shoulders particularly in the post-operative setting. Nutritionists are also important members of the treatment team and can provide value guidance on dietary recommendations as well as nutritional assessments before during and after your treatment course.

Patients going through treatment for head and neck cancer need significant support physically, emotionally and financially. A cancer navigator (a nurse, social worker or other knowledgeable individual), may be an excellent resource for assisting patients in meeting these needs.

file_downloadFree download

Skin Cancer eBook

Download our guide to learn how to protect and care for your skin, monitor moles, and understand the signs of skin cancer.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.