Head & Neck (H&N) Cancers

Head & Neck (H&N) Cancers

Radiation Therapy for Head and Neck Cancers

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Facts About Head and Neck Cancers

  • According to the American Cancer Society, there will be 50, 360 new cases of head and neck cancers diagnosed in 2009.
  • Smoking is associated with incr

    Treatment for Head and Neck Cancer

    Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on several factors, including the type of cancer, its size and stage, its location and your overall health. Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the mainstays of treating head and neck cancers.

    Head and neck diagram

    – Diagram of the structures of the mouth and throat.

    • For many head and neck cancers, combining two or three types of treatment may be most effective. That is why it is important to talk to several cancer specialists about your care, including a surgeon, a radiation oncologist and a medical oncologist.
    • An important concept in treating head and neck cancers is organ preservation where doctors are able to keep the function of an organ, like you natural ability to chew or taste food. An organ preservation approach uses radiation and sometimes chemotherapy to shrink or completely eliminate the tumor. This can allow some patients to avoid surgery.

    External Beam Radiation Therapy

    Radiation therapy treatments are delivered in a series of painless daily sessions. Radiation treatments take only a few minutes, but each session takes about 30 minutes to get checked in, change clothes, get into position and receive the radiation. For some conditions, radiation is given twice a day, with several hours between treatments. Treatments are usually scheduled Monday through Friday, for five to eight weeks. The time will depend on your treatment plan and type of cancer.

    • Three-dimensional conformal radiotherapy (3D-CRT) combines multiple radiation treatment fields to deliver precise doses of radiation to the affected area.
    • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a form of 3D-CRT that further modifies the radiation by varying the intensity of each radiation beam. This allows a precise adjustment of radiation doses to the tissue within the target area.
    • These targeted treatments help get radiation to the cancer and avoid healthy tissue nearby. This may help avoid side effects like changes in your saliva.
    • To help you keep still during treatment, your doctor may use a plastic mask over your head and shoulders. This device has holes so you can see and breathe through it, and it is specially designed to fit snugly on you. Wearing the mask doesn’t hurt.

    Chemotherapy is medication that treats cancer. It is often given in addition to radiation therapy to help cure your cancer. Ask your doctor whether you will be receiving chemotherapy and about any side effects to expect.

    External Beam Radiation Therapy

    Radiation therapy treatments are delivered in a series of painless daily sessions. Radiation treatments take only a few minutes, but each session takes about 30 minutes to get checked in, change clothes, get into position and receive the radiation. For some conditions, radiation is given twice a day, with several hours between treatments. Treatments are usually scheduled Monday through Friday, for five to eight weeks. The time will depend on your treatment plan and type of cancer.

    • Three-dimensional conformal radiotherapy (3D-CRT) combines multiple radiation treatment fields to deliver precise doses of radiation to the affected area.
    • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a form of 3D-CRT that further modifies the radiation by varying the intensity of each radiation beam. This allows a precise adjustment of radiation doses to the tissue within the target area.
    • These targeted treatments help get radiation to the cancer and avoid healthy tissue nearby. This may help avoid side effects like changes in your saliva.
    • To help you keep still during treatment, your doctor may use a plastic mask over your head and shoulders. This device has holes so you can see and breathe through it, and it is specially designed to fit snugly on you. Wearing the mask doesn’t hurt.

    Chemotherapy is medication that treats cancer. It is often given in addition to radiation therapy to help cure your cancer. Ask your doctor whether you will be receiving chemotherapy and about any side effects to expect.

    Internal Radiation Therapy

    • Also called brachytherapy, internal radiation therapy involves inserting radioactive material into a tumor or surrounding tissue. For head and neck cancers, brachytherapy is often used with external beam radiation therapy, but it may be used alone.
    • During brachytherapy, your radiation oncologist places thin, hollow plastic tubes into the tumor and surrounding tissue. These tubes are loaded with tiny radioactive seeds that remain in place for a short time to kill the cancer. The seeds and the tubes are then removed.
    • With low-dose-rate brachytherapy, the seeds will be left in place for one to three days. For high-dose-rate brachytherapy, a single radioactive seed stops at various positions along the tubes for short times to deliver an equivalent dose. The exact type of brachytherapy and lengths of time the seeds are in place will depend on your cancer and treatment plan.

    Dental Care During Treatment

    Radiation therapy to the head and neck can result in a drier mouth and increased risk of problems with your teeth. Special attention from your dentist is important during treatment.

    • Be sure your dentist and radiation oncologist talk to each other about the best care for your teeth.
    • Before starting radiation therapy, see your dentist. He or she will also want to see you during your treatment to help you care for your mouth.
    • Careful brushing of your teeth can help prevent tooth decay, gum disease and jaw infections. Use a fluoride toothpaste without abrasives.
    • Your dentist may recommend special dental fluoride treatment to protect your teeth.
    • Floss gently between your teeth daily using waxed, non-shredding dental floss. It may help to rinse daily with a salt and baking soda solution.

    Possible Side Effects

    • Side effects of radiation therapy are limited to the area that is receiving treatment. Side effects can include redness of the skin, sore mouth and throat, dry mouth, thick mouth secretions, alteration of taste, pain on swallowing and temporary hair loss on your head, neck and face. Feeling tired is also very common.
    • The way foods taste and the amount of saliva you produce should improve after treatment ends. However, foods may not taste exactly as they did before treatment.
    • Medications may be prescribed to make you as comfortable as possible. Nutritional supplements may be given to help prevent weight loss.
    • In some patients treated with combined radiation therapy and chemotherapy, mouth sores and pain when swallowing may prevent proper earting and drinking. In that case, a small feeding tube may be temporarily used during treatment.

    If during your treatment you feel discomfort, tell your doctor or nurse. They may be able to prescribe medicine to help you feel better. The type and duration of radiation treatment side effects will vary from person to person.

    Caring For Yourself During Treatment

    • Follow your doctor’s orders. Ask if you are unsure about anything. It may help to bring a friend or family member to appointments to help take notes.
    • Get plenty of rest during treatment, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ask about reasons you should call after hours and what number to use.
    • Tell your doctor about any medications or vitamins you are taking, to make sure they are safe to use during radiation therapy.
    • Eat a balanced diet. If food tastes funny or if you’re having trouble eating, tell your doctor, nurse or dietician. They might be able to help you change the way you eat.
    • Treat the skin exposed to radiation with special care. Wear a hat when you are in the sun, avoid hot or cold packs, only use lotions and ointments after checking with your doctor or nurse and clean the area with warm water and mild soap.
    • Coping with cancer is can be difficult. Seek out help from support groups and friends.

    Additional Online Resources:
    Learn More About Head and Neck Cancer on the Blog (Includes Video Clips, Images, Latest Cancer News and Cure Rates, News Clips, Patient Testimonials, Cancer Doctor Testimonials)

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