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Head and Neck Cancer - Overview

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Head and Neck Cancer. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen. Think of that menu as a roadmap to this full guide.

Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread.

About head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer is a term used to describe a number of different malignant tumors that develop in or around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, and mouth (see below).

Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. This type of cancer begins in the flat, squamous cells that make up the thin layer of tissue on the surface of the structures in the head and neck. Directly beneath this lining, which is called the epithelium, some areas of the head and neck have a layer of moist tissue, called the mucosa. If a cancer is limited to the squamous layer of cells, it is called carcinoma in situ. If the cancer has grown beyond this cell layer and moved into the deeper tissue, then it is called invasive squamous cell carcinoma.

If a head and neck cancer starts in the salivary glands, the tumor will usually be classified as an adenocarcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, or mucoepidermoid carcinoma.

Types of head and neck cancer

There are five main types of head and neck cancer, each named according to the part of the body where they develop. For more information about a specific type, click on one of the names below.

  • Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer. The larynx is commonly called the voice box. It is a tube-shaped organ in the neck that is important for breathing, talking, and swallowing. It is located at the top of the windpipe, or trachea. The hypopharynx is also called the gullet. It is the lower part of the throat that surrounds the larynx.
  • Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancer. The nasal cavity is the space just behind the nose where air passes on its way to the throat. The paranasal sinuses are the air-filled areas that surround the nasal cavity.
  • Nasopharyngeal Cancer. The nasopharynx is the air passageway at the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
  • Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer. The oral cavity includes the mouth and tongue. The oropharynx includes the middle of the throat from the tonsils to the tip of the voice box.
  • Salivary Gland Cancer. The salivary gland is tissue that produces saliva, which is the fluid that is released into the mouth to keep it moist and that contains enzymes that begin breaking down food.

Other types of cancer can also be located in the head and neck region, but the diagnosis and treatment are much different. Specific information about brain tumors, esophageal cancer, eye cancer, parathyroid cancer, sarcoma, and thyroid cancer is available in separate sections on Cancer.Net.

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The next section in this guide is Statistics, and it helps explain how many people are diagnosed with this type of cancer and general survival rates. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Head and Neck Cancer - Statistics

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find information about how many people are diagnosed with this type of cancer each year and some general survival information. Remember, survival rates depend on several factors. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Head and neck cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the United States. This year, an estimated 59,340 people (43,390 men and 15,950 women) will develop head and neck cancer. It is estimated that 12,290 deaths (8,900 men and 3,390 women) will occur this year.

The five-year survival rate is the percentage of people who survive at least five years after the cancer is found. The five-year survival rate of people with head and neck cancer varies and depends on several factors. Check the individual section describing a specific type of head and neck cancer for more information about survival statistics (see the Overview for a complete list).

Cancer survival statistics should be interpreted with caution. These estimates are based on data from thousands of people with this type of cancer in the United States each year, so the actual risk for a particular individual may be different. It is not possible to tell a person how long he or she will live with head and neck cancer. Because the survival statistics are measured in five-year intervals, they may not represent advances made in the treatment or diagnosis of this cancer. Learn more about understanding statistics.

Statistics adapted from the American Cancer Society’s publication, Cancer Facts & Figures 2015 and the National Cancer Institute.

The next section in this guide is Risk Factors and Prevention. It explains what factors may increase the chance of developing this type of cancer and ways to help reduce your risk. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.  

Head and Neck Cancer - Risk Factors and Prevention

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about what factors increase the chance of this type of cancer. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop the disease, while others with no known risk factors do. However, knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

Two substances greatly increase the risk of developing a head and neck cancer:

  • Tobacco. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes; chewing tobacco; and using snuff are the single largest risk factors for head and neck cancer. Eighty-five percent (85%) of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use, and the amount of tobacco use may affect prognosis, which is the chance of recovery. In addition, secondhand smoke may increase a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer.

  • Alcohol. Frequent and heavy alcohol consumption raises the risk of developing cancer in the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases this risk even more.

Other factors that can raise a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer include:

  • Prolonged sun exposure. This is especially linked to cancer in the lip area, as well as skin cancer of the head and neck.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Research indicates that infection with this virus is becoming an increasingly common risk factor for some types of head and neck cancer. HPV is most often passed from person to person during sexual activity. There are different types, or strains, of HPV. Some strains are more strongly associated with certain types of cancer. HPV vaccines protect against certain strains of the virus. (See the Latest Research section for more information.)

  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Exposure to EBV, which is more commonly known as the virus that causes mononucleosis or "mono," plays a role in the development of nasopharyngeal cancer.

  • Gender. Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer. However, the rate of head and neck cancer in women has been rising for several decades.

  • Age. People over the age of 40 are at higher risk for head and neck cancer.

  • Race. Black people are more likely than white people to develop certain types of head and neck cancer.

  • Poor oral and dental hygiene. Poor care of the mouth and teeth has been suggested as a factor that may increase the risk of head and neck cancer.

  • Environmental or occupational inhalants. Exposure to asbestos, wood dust, paint fumes, and certain chemicals may increase a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.

  • Marijuana use. Research suggests that people who have used marijuana may be at higher risk for head and neck cancer.

  • Poor nutrition. A diet low in vitamins A and B can raise a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and laryngopharyngeal reflux disease (LPRD). Reflux of stomach acid into the upper airway and throat has been suggested as a factor associated with the development of head and neck cancer.

  • Weakened immune system. A weakened immune system can raise a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.

Prevention

Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause this type of cancer. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent this disease, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk with your doctor for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

Stopping the use of all tobacco products is the most important thing a person can do to reduce their risk, even for people who have been smoking for many years. Other steps that can reduce the risk of head and neck cancer include:

  • Avoiding alcohol

  • Discussing marijuana as a risk factor with your doctor and avoiding marijuana use

  • Using sunscreen regularly, including lip balm with an adequate sun protection factor (SPF)

  • Reducing your risk of HPV infection by limiting the number of sexual partners, since having many partners increases the risk of HPV infection. Using a condom cannot fully protect you from HPV during sex.

  • Maintaining proper care of dentures. Poorly fitting dentures can trap tobacco and alcohol’s cancer-causing substances. Denture wearers should have their dentures evaluated by a dentist at least every five years to ensure a good fit. Dentures should be removed every night and cleaned and rinsed thoroughly every day.

The next section in this guide is Screening, and it explains how tests may find cancer before signs or symptoms appear. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Head and Neck Cancer - Screening

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about how people may be screened for this type of cancer, including risks and benefits of screening. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Scientists have developed, and continue to develop, tests that can be used to screen a person for specific types of cancer before signs or symptoms appear. The overall goals of cancer screening are to:

  • Lower the number of people who die from the disease, or eliminate deaths from cancer altogether

  • Lower the number of people who develop the disease

Learn more about the basics of cancer screening.

Screening information for head and neck cancer

People who routinely drink alcohol, currently use tobacco products, or have used tobacco products in the past should receive general health screening examination at least once a year. This is a simple, quick procedure in which the doctor looks in the nose, mouth, and throat for abnormalities and feels for lumps in the neck. If anything unusual is found, the doctor will recommend a more extensive examination using one or more of the procedures mentioned in the Diagnosis section.

Regular dental check-ups with a dentist are also important to screen for head and neck cancer.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs, and it explains what body changes or medical problems this type of cancer can cause. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.  

Head and Neck Cancer - Symptoms and Signs

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

People with head and neck cancer often experience the following symptoms or signs. Sometimes, people with head and neck cancer do not show any of these symptoms. Or, these symptoms may be caused by a medical condition that is not cancer.

  • Swelling or sore that does not heal; this is the most common symptom

  • Red or white patch in the mouth

  • Lump, bump, or mass in the head or neck area, with or without pain

  • Persistent sore throat

  • Foul mouth odor not explained by hygiene

  • Hoarseness or change in voice

  • Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion

  • Frequent nose bleeds and/or unusual nasal discharge

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Double vision

  • Numbness or weakness of a body part in the head and neck region

  • Pain or difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaw or tongue

  • Ear and/or jaw pain

  • Blood in the saliva or phlegm, which is mucus discharged in mouth from respiratory passages

  • Loosening of teeth

  • Dentures that no longer fit

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Fatigue

If you are concerned about one or more of the symptoms or signs on this list, please talk with your doctor. Your doctor will ask how long and how often you’ve been experiencing the symptom(s), in addition to other questions. This is to help find out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

If cancer is diagnosed, relieving symptoms remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. This may also be called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care. Be sure to talk with your health care team about symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

The next section in this guide is Diagnosis, and it explains what tests may be needed to learn more about the cause of the symptoms. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Head and Neck Cancer - Diagnosis

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find a list of the common tests, procedures, and scans that doctors can use to find out what’s wrong and identify the cause of the problem. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Doctors use many tests to diagnose cancer and find out if it has spread to another part of the body, called metastasis. Some tests may also determine which treatments may be the most effective. For most types of cancer, a biopsy (see description below) is the only way to make a definitive diagnosis of cancer. If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis. Imaging tests may be used to find out whether the cancer has spread.

This list describes options for diagnosing this type of cancer, and not all tests listed will be used for every person. Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

  • Age and medical condition

  • Type of cancer suspected

  • Signs and symptoms

  • Previous test results

If a person has symptoms and signs of head and neck cancer, the doctor will take a complete medical history, noting all symptoms and risk factors. In addition, the following tests may be used to diagnose head and neck cancer:

  • Physical examination/blood and urine tests. During a physical examination, the doctor feels for any lumps on the neck, lips, gums, and cheeks. Also, the doctor will inspect the nose, mouth, throat, and tongue for abnormalities, often using a light and a mirror for a clearer view. Blood and urine tests may be performed to help diagnose cancer.

  • HPV testing. Evaluation may include testing for HPV infection. As outlined in the Risk Factors section, HPV has been linked to a higher risk of some head and neck cancers. In some cases, whether a person has HPV can also be a factor in determining which treatments are likely to be most effective.

  • Endoscopy. This test allows the doctor to see inside the body with a thin, lighted, flexible tube called an endoscope. The person may be sedated as the tube is gently inserted through the nose into the throat and down the esophagus to examine inside the head and neck. Sedation is giving medication to become more relaxed, calm, or sleepy. The examination has different names depending on the area of the body that is examined, such as laryngoscopy to view the larynx, pharyngoscopy to view the pharynx, or nasopharyngoscopy to view the nasopharynx. When these procedures are combined, they are sometimes referred to as a panendoscopy.

  • Biopsy. A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope. A pathologist then analyzes the sample(s) removed during the biopsy. A pathologist is a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease. One common type of biopsy is called a fine needle aspiration. During this procedure, cells are withdrawn using a thin needle inserted directly into the tumor or lymph node. The cells are examined under a microscope for cancer cells, which is called a cytologic examination.

  • Molecular testing of the tumor. Your doctor may recommend running laboratory tests on a tumor sample to identify specific genes, proteins, and other factors unique to the tumor. Results of these tests will help decide whether your treatment options include a type of treatment called targeted therapy. See the Treatment Options section for more information.

  • X-ray/barium swallow. An x-ray is a way to create a picture of the structures inside of the body, using a small amount of radiation. A barium swallow may be required to identify abnormalities along the swallowing passage. During a barium swallow, a person swallows a liquid containing barium, and a series of x-rays are taken. Barium coats the lining of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines, so tumors or other abnormalities are easier to see on the x-ray. A special type of barium swallow called a modified barium swallow may be needed to evaluate specific swallowing difficulties. If there are signs of cancer, the doctor may recommend a computed tomography (CT) scan (see below).

  • Panorex. This is a rotating, or panoramic, x-ray of the upper and lower jawbones to detect cancer or evaluate the teeth before radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

  • Ultrasound. An ultrasound uses sound waves to create a picture of internal organs.

  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. A CT scan creates a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body with an x-ray machine. A computer then combines these images into a detailed, cross-sectional view that shows any abnormalities or tumors. A CT scan can also be used to measure the tumor’s size. Sometimes, a special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to provide better detail on the image. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a liquid to swallow.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to produce detailed images of the body, especially images of soft tissue, such as the tonsils and base of the tongue. MRI can also be used to measure the tumor’s size. A special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to create a clearer picture. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a liquid to swallow.

  • Bone scan. A bone scan uses a radioactive tracer to look at the inside of the bones. The tracer is injected into a patient’s vein. It collects in areas of the bone and is detected by a special camera. Healthy bone appears gray to the camera, and areas of injury, such as those caused by cancer, appear dark. This test may be done to see if cancer has spread to the bones.

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan. A PET scan is a way to create pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. A small amount of a radioactive sugar substance is injected into the patient’s body. This sugar substance is taken up by cells that use the most energy. Because cancer tends to use energy actively, it absorbs more of the radioactive substance. A scanner then detects this substance to produce images of the inside of the body.

After diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review all of the results with you. If the diagnosis is cancer, these results also help the doctor describe the cancer; this is called staging. 

The next section in this guide is Stages, and it explains the system doctors use to describe the extent of the disease. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Head and Neck Cancer - Stages

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about how doctors describe a cancer’s growth or spread. This is called the stage. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Staging is a way of describing where the cancer is located, if or where it has spread, and whether it is affecting other parts of the body. Doctors use diagnostic tests to find out the cancer’s stage, so staging may not be complete until all of the tests are finished. Knowing the stage helps the doctor to decide what kind of treatment is best and can help predict a patient’s prognosis.

TNM staging system

One tool that doctors use to describe the stage is the TNM system. Doctors use the results from diagnostic tests and scans to answer these questions:

  • Tumor (T): How large is the primary tumor? Where is it located?

  • Node (N): Has the tumor spread to the lymph nodes? If so, where and how many?

  • Metastasis (M): Has the cancer metastasized to other parts of the body? If so, where and how much?

The results are combined to determine the stage of cancer for each person. The stage provides a common way of describing the cancer, so doctors can work together to plan the best treatments.

There is a different staging system for each type of head and neck cancer, and detailed information about these stages can be found in the specific cancer type section. See the Overview for a complete list of these types of cancer.

Recurrent head and neck cancer

Recurrent cancer is cancer that has come back after treatment. If the cancer does return, there will be another round of tests to learn about the extent of the recurrence. These tests and scans are often similar to those done at the time of the original diagnosis.

Information about the cancer’s stage will help the doctor recommend a specific treatment plan. The next section in this guide is Treatment Options. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Head and Neck Cancer - Treatment Options

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about the different ways doctors use to treat people with this type of cancer. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

This section outlines treatments that are the standard of care (the best known treatments available) for this type of cancer. When making treatment plan decisions, patients are also encouraged to consider clinical trials as an option. A clinical trial is a research study to test a new approach to treatment to evaluate whether it is safe, effective, and possibly better than the standard treatment. Clinical trials may test such approaches as a new drug, a new combination of standard treatments, or new doses of current therapies. Your doctor can help you review all treatment options. For more information, see the About Clinical Trials and Latest Research sections.

The cancer care team

Head and neck cancer specialists usually form a multidisciplinary team to care for each patient, and an evaluation should be done by each doctor before any treatment begins. This team often includes a:

  • Medical oncologist, which is a doctor who specialize in treating cancer with medication

  • Radiation oncologist, which is a doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer

  • Surgical oncologist, which is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer using surgery

  • Plastic (reconstruction) surgeon

  • Maxillofacial prosthodontist, which is a specialist who performs restorative surgery in the head and neck areas

  • Otolaryngologist, which is a doctor who specializes in the ear, nose, and throat

  • Oncologic dentist or oral oncologist, which are dentists experienced in caring for people with head and neck cancer

  • Physical therapist

  • Speech pathologist

  • Audiologist, which is a hearing expert

  • Psychologist and/or psychiatrist

Cancer care teams also include a variety of other health care professionals, including physician assistants, oncology nurses, social workers, pharmacists, counselors, dietitians, and others. It is extremely important to create a comprehensive treatment plan before treatment begins, and people may need to be seen by several specialists before a treatment plan is fully developed. 

Treatment overview

Many cancers of the head and neck can be cured, especially if they are found early. Although eliminating the cancer is the primary goal of treatment, preserving the function of the nearby nerves, organs, and tissues is also very important. When planning treatment, doctors consider how treatment might affect a person’s quality of life, such as how a person feels, looks, talks, eats, and breathes.

Descriptions of the most common treatment options for head and neck cancer are listed below.

Overall, the main treatment options are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. Surgery or radiation therapy by themselves or a combination of these treatments may be part of a person’s treatment plan. More details can be found in each specific cancer type’s section.

Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, possible side effects, and the patient’s preferences and overall health. Your care plan may also include treatment for symptoms and side effects, an important part of cancer care. Take time to learn about all of your treatment options and be sure to ask questions about things that are unclear. Also, talk about the goals of each treatment with your doctor and what you can expect while receiving the treatment. Learn more about making treatment decisions.

Surgery

During surgery, the goal is to remove the cancerous tumor and some surrounding healthy tissue during an operation. Types of surgery for head and neck cancer include:

  • Laser technology. This may be used to treat an early-stage tumor, especially if it was found in the larynx.

  • Excision. This is an operation to remove the cancerous tumor and some surrounding healthy tissue, known as a margin.

  • Lymph node dissection or neck dissection. If the doctor suspects the cancer has spread, the doctor may remove lymph nodes in the neck, possibly causing stiffness in the shoulders afterward. This may be done at the same time as an excision.

  • Reconstructive (plastic) surgery. If cancer surgery requires major tissue removal, such as removing the jaw, skin, pharynx, or tongue, reconstructive or plastic surgery may be done to replace the missing tissue. This type of operation helps restore a person’s appearance and the function of the affected area. For example, a prosthodontist may be able to make an artificial dental or facial part to help restore the ability to swallow and speak. A speech pathologist may then be needed to help the patient relearn how to swallow and communicate using new techniques or special equipment.

In general, depending on the location, stage, and type of the cancer, some people may need more than one operation. Sometimes, it is not possible to completely remove the cancer, and additional treatments may be necessary. For example, surgery may be followed by radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy to destroy cancer cells that cannot be removed during surgery.

Side effects of surgery depend on the type and location of the surgery, and each patient is encouraged to talk with their doctor about side effects expected from the specific surgery and how long the side effects are likely to last. Common side effects from head and neck surgery include temporary or permanent loss of normal voice, impaired speech, and hearing loss. People often have difficulty chewing or swallowing after cancer surgery, which may require a tube inserted in the stomach for feeding purposes. In addition, after a total laryngectomy, which is the removal of the larynx, people may have decreased functioning of the thyroid gland that will need to be managed.

Another potential side effect is swelling of the mouth and throat area, making it difficult to breathe. If this side effect develops, patients may receive a temporary tracheostomy, which creates a hole in the windpipe to make breathing easier.

Some people experience facial disfigurement from surgery. Reconstructive surgery (see above) may be recommended to help appearance or maintain important functions, such as chewing, swallowing, and breathing. Patients should meet with the members of the health care team to help them make decisions about their treatment. Programs that help patients adjust to changes in body image may be useful both before and after the surgery. Talking with your doctor about what to expect and how recovery will be handled can help you cope with side effects.

Learn more about the basics of cancer surgery.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles to destroy cancer cells. A radiation therapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a set period of time. It can be the main treatment for head and neck cancer, or it can be used after surgery to destroy small areas of cancer that cannot be removed surgically.

The most common type of radiation therapy is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation given from a machine outside the body. One specific type of external-beam radiation therapy is intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT uses advanced technology to more accurately direct the beams of radiation at the tumor. This helps reduce damage to nearby healthy cells, potentially causing fewer side effects.

Proton therapy is another type of external-beam radiation therapy that uses protons rather than x-rays. At this time, proton therapy is not a standard treatment option for most types of head and neck cancer. See the Latest Research section for more information.

When radiation therapy is given using implants, it is called internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy.

Before beginning radiation therapy for any type of head and neck cancer, patients should be examined by an oncologic dentist or oral oncologist. Since radiation therapy can cause tooth decay, damaged teeth may need to be removed. Often, tooth decay can be prevented with proper treatment from a dentist before beginning treatment. Learn more about dental and oral side effects. People should also receive an evaluation from a speech pathologist who has experience treating people with head and neck cancer.

Patients may experience short- and long-term pain or difficulty swallowing, changes in voice because of swelling and scarring, and loss of appetite due to a change in sense of taste.  It is important that patients begin speech and swallowing therapy early, before radiation therapy begins, to prevent long-term problems with speaking or eating.

In addition, radiation therapy to the head and neck may cause redness or skin irritation in the treated area, swelling, dry mouth or thickened saliva from damage to salivary glands, bone pain, nausea, fatigue, mouth sores, and/or sore throat. Many of these side effects go away soon after treatment has finished. Other side effects may include hearing loss due to a buildup of fluid in the middle ear, a buildup of earwax that dries out because of the radiation therapy’s effect on the ear canal, and fibrosis (scarring).

Radiation therapy also may cause a condition called hypothyroidism in which the thyroid gland (located in the neck) slows down and causes the patient to feel tired and sluggish. This may be treated with thyroid hormone therapy. Every patient who receives radiation therapy to the neck area should have his or her thyroid checked regularly. Patients are encouraged to talk with their health care teams about what to expect from side effects of radiation therapy before treatment begins, including how these side effects can be prevented or managed.

Learn more about the basics of radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells, usually by stopping the cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide.

Systemic chemotherapy gets into the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Common ways to give chemotherapy include an intravenous (IV) tube placed into a vein using a needle or in a pill or capsule that is swallowed (orally).

A chemotherapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive one drug at a time or combinations of different drugs at the same time.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the individual and the dose used, but they can include fatigue, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished.

Learn more about the basics of chemotherapy and preparing for treatment. The medications used to treat cancer are continually being evaluated. Talking with your doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for you, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications. Learn more about your prescriptions by using searchable drug databases.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a treatment that targets the cancer’s specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that contributes to cancer growth and survival. This type of treatment blocks the growth and spread of cancer cells while limiting damage to healthy cells.

Recent studies show that not all tumors have the same targets. To find the most effective treatment, your doctor may run tests to identify the genes, proteins, and other factors in your tumor. This helps doctors better match each patient with the most effective treatment whenever possible. In addition, many research studies are taking place now to find out more about specific molecular targets and new treatments directed at them.

For head and neck cancers, treatments that target a tumor protein called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) may be recommended. Researchers have found that drugs that block EGFR help stop or slow the growth of certain types of head and neck cancer.

Talk with your doctor about possible side effects for a specific medication and how they can be prevented or managed. Learn more about the basics of targeted treatments.

Getting care for symptoms and side effects

Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects. In addition to treatment to slow, stop, or eliminate the cancer, an important part of cancer care is relieving a person’s symptoms and side effects. This approach is called palliative or supportive care, and it includes supporting the patient with his or her physical, emotional, and social needs.

Palliative care is any treatment that focuses on reducing symptoms, improving quality of life, and supporting patients and their families. Any person, regardless of age or type and stage of cancer, may receive palliative care. It works best when palliative care is started as early as needed in the cancer treatment process.

People often receive treatment for the cancer and treatment to ease side effects at the same time. In fact, patients who receive both often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report they are more satisfied with treatment.

Palliative treatments vary widely and often include medication, nutritional changes, relaxation techniques, emotional support, and other therapies. You may also receive palliative treatments similar to those meant to eliminate the cancer, such as chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation therapy. Talk with your doctor about the goals of each treatment in the treatment plan.

Before treatment begins, talk with your health care team about the possible side effects of your specific treatment plan and palliative care options. And during and after treatment, be sure to tell your doctor or another health care team member if you are experiencing a problem so it can be addressed as quickly as possible. Learn more about palliative care.   

Metastatic head and neck cancer

If cancer has spread to another location in the body, it is called metastatic cancer. Patients with this diagnosis are encouraged to talk with doctors who are experienced in treating this stage of cancer because there can be different opinions about the best treatment plan. Learn more about getting a second opinion before starting treatment, so you are comfortable with the treatment plan chosen. This discussion may include clinical trials.

Your health care team may recommend a treatment plan that includes a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. Palliative care will also be important to help relieve symptoms and side effects.

For most patients, a diagnosis of metastatic cancer is very stressful and, at times, difficult to bear. Patients and their families are encouraged to talk about the way they are feeling with doctors, nurses, social workers, or other members of the health care team. It may also be helpful to talk with other patients through a support group.

Remission and the chance of recurrence

A remission is when cancer cannot be detected in the body and there are no symptoms. This may also be called having “no evidence of disease” or NED. 

A remission may be temporary or permanent. This uncertainty causes many people to worry that the cancer will come back. While many remissions are permanent, it’s important to talk with your doctor about the possibility of the cancer returning. Understanding your risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help you feel more prepared if the cancer does return. Learn more about coping with the fear of recurrence

If the cancer does return after the original treatment, it is called recurrent cancer. It may come back in the same place (called a local recurrence), nearby (regional recurrence), or in another place (distant recurrence).

When this occurs, a cycle of testing will begin again to learn as much as possible about the recurrence. After testing is done, you and your doctor will talk about your treatment options. Often the treatment plan will include the treatments described above, such as surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or radiation therapy, but they may be used in a different combination or given at a different pace. Your doctor may also suggest clinical trials that are studying new ways to treat this type of recurrent cancer. Whichever treatment plan you choose, palliative care will be important for relieving symptoms and side effects.

People with recurrent cancer often experience emotions such as disbelief or fear. Patients are encouraged to talk with their health care team about these feelings and ask about support services to help them cope. Learn more about dealing with cancer recurrence.

If treatment fails

Recovery from cancer is not always possible. If the cancer cannot be cured or controlled, the disease may be called advanced or terminal.

This diagnosis is stressful, and advanced cancer is difficult to discuss for many people. However, it is important to have open and honest conversations with your doctor and health care team to express your feelings, preferences, and concerns. The health care team is there to help, and many team members have special skills, experience, and knowledge to support patients and their families. Making sure a person is physically comfortable and free from pain is extremely important.

Patients who have advanced cancer and who are expected to live less than six months may want to consider a type of palliative care called hospice care. Hospice care is designed to provide the best possible quality of life for people who are near the end of life. You and your family are encouraged to think about where you would be most comfortable: at home, in the hospital, or in a hospice environment. Nursing care and special equipment can make staying at home a workable alternative for many families. Learn more about advanced cancer care planning.

After the death of a loved one, many people need support to help them cope with the loss. Learn more about grief and loss.

The next section in this guide is About Clinical Trials, and it offers more information about research studies that are focused on finding better ways to care for people with cancer. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.  

Head and Neck Cancer - About Clinical Trials

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn more about clinical trials, which are the main way that new medical approaches are tested to see how well they work. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

What are clinical trials?

Doctors and scientists are always looking for better ways to care for patients with head and neck cancer. To make scientific advances, doctors create research studies involving volunteers, called clinical trials. In fact, every drug that is now approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was previously tested in clinical trials.

Many clinical trials are focused on new treatments, evaluating whether a new treatment is safe, effective, and possibly better than the current (standard) treatment. These types of studies evaluate new drugs, different combinations of existing treatments, new approaches to radiation therapy or surgery, and new methods of treatment. Patients who participate in clinical trials are often among the first to receive new treatments, such as new chemotherapy, before they are widely available. However, there is no guarantee that the new treatment will be safe, effective, or better than a standard treatment.

There are also clinical trials that study new ways to ease symptoms and side effects during treatment and manage the late effects that may occur after treatment. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials regarding side effects. In addition, there are ongoing studies about ways to prevent the disease.

Deciding to join a clinical trial

People decide to participate in clinical trials for many reasons. For some, a clinical trial is the best treatment option available. Because standard treatments are not perfect, patients are often willing to face the added uncertainty of a clinical trial in the hope of a better result. Other patients volunteer for clinical trials because they know that these studies are the only way to make progress in treating head and neck cancer. Even if they do not benefit directly from the clinical trial, their participation may benefit future patients with head and neck cancer.

Sometimes people have concerns that, in a clinical trial, they may receive no treatment by being given a placebo or a “sugar pill.” However, placebos are usually combined with standard treatment in most cancer clinical trials. When a placebo is used in a study, it is done with the full knowledge of the participants. Find out more about placebos in cancer clinical trials.

Patient safety and informed consent

To join a clinical trial, patients must participate in a process known as informed consent. During informed consent, the doctor should list all of the patient’s options so that the person understands how the new treatment differs from the standard treatment. The doctor must also list all of the risks of the new treatment, which may or may not be different than the risks of standard treatment. Finally, the doctor must explain what will be required of each patient in order to participate in the clinical trial, including the number of doctor visits, tests, and the schedule of treatment.

Patients who participate in a clinical trial may stop participating at any time for any personal or medical reason. This may include that the new treatment is not working or there are serious side effects. Clinical trials are also closely monitored by experts who watch for any problems with each study. It is important that patients participating in a clinical trial talk with their doctor and researchers about who will be providing their treatment and care during the clinical trial, after the clinical trial ends, and/or if the patient chooses to leave the clinical trial before it ends.

Finding a clinical trial

Research through clinical trials is ongoing for all types of cancer. For specific topics being studied for head and neck cancer, learn more in the Latest Research section.

Cancer.Net offers a lot of information about cancer clinical trials in other areas of the website, including a complete section on clinical trials and places to search for clinical trials for a specific type of cancer.

In addition, this website offers free access to a video-based educational program about cancer clinical trials, located outside of this guide.

The next section in this guide is Latest Research, and it explains areas of scientific research currently going on for this type of cancer. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Head and Neck Cancer - Latest Research

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about the scientific research being done now to learn more about this type of cancer and how to treat it. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Doctors are working to learn more about head and neck cancer, ways to prevent it, how to best treat it, and how to provide the best care to people diagnosed with this disease. The following areas of research may include new options for patients through clinical trials. Always talk with your doctor about the diagnostic and treatment options best for you.

  • New medications. Many studies are underway to learn more about new types of drugs that may help treat head and neck cancer.

  • Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, is designed to boost the body's natural defenses to fight the cancer. It uses materials made either by the body or in a laboratory to improve, target, or restore immune system function. These new drugs are showing promising activity in current clinical trials. Learn more about the basics of immunotherapy.

    One active area of immunotherapy research is looking at drugs that block a protein called PD-1. PD-1 is found on the surface of T-cells, which are a type of white blood cell that directly helps the body’s immune system fight disease. Because PD-1 keeps the immune system from destroying cancer cells, stopping PD-1 from working allows the immune system to better eliminate the disease. Currently researchers are studying PD-1 immunotherapy for people with recurrent and metastatic head and neck cancer in clinical trials.

  • Combined therapies. Most research for head and neck cancer focuses on combining different types of treatments to improve treatment effectiveness and the patient’s quality of life.

  • Radiofrequency thermal ablation (RFA). RFA is a minimally invasive treatment option that applies heat to the tumor to destroy cancer cells. It is usually used to treat a localized tumor that cannot be removed by surgery.

  • Gene therapy. Gene therapy is a targeted form of treatment that uses biologic gene manipulation to change bits of genetic code in a person’s cells. Although gene therapy is relatively new, it appears to show promising potential for treating head and neck cancer.

  • Photodynamic therapy. In photodynamic therapy, a light-sensitive substance is injected into the tumor that stays longer in cancer cells than in healthy cells. A laser is then directed at the tumor and destroys the cancer cells. The long-term effects of photodynamic therapy are still being investigated.

  • Proton therapy. Proton therapy can be added to a treatment plan to reduce the damage done to healthy tissue. This technique may help protect important structures in the head, such as the brainstem and the optic nerves that run to the eyes, when used for nasopharyngeal cancer, chordoma, or chondrosarcoma. A chordoma is a rare tumor that usually occurs in the spine or the base of the skull. Chondrosarcoma is a tumor that develops in cartilage.

  • HPV. Researchers continue to investigate the link between HPV and head and neck cancer. These studies are evaluating why HPV raises the risk of the disease and how the virus may affect the outcome of some treatments. Studies are also underway to determine whether the HPV vaccine that is currently used to prevent cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancer is effective at preventing some head and neck cancers as well.

  • Palliative care. Clinical trials are underway to find better ways of reducing symptoms and side effects of current head and neck cancer treatments in order to improve patients’ comfort and quality of life.

Looking for More About the Latest Research?

If you would like additional information about the latest areas of research regarding head and neck cancer, explore these related items that take you outside of this guide:

The next section in this guide is Coping with Side Effects, and it offers some guidance in how to cope with the physical, emotional, and social changes that cancer and its treatment can bring. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.  

Head and Neck Cancer - Coping with Side Effects

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about steps to take to help cope with physical, social, and emotional side effects. This page includes several links outside of this guide to other sections of this website. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Fear of treatment side effects is common after a diagnosis of cancer, but it may help to know that preventing and controlling side effects is a major focus of your health care team. This is called palliative care, and it is an important part of the overall treatment plan, regardless of the stage of disease.

There are possible side effects for every cancer treatment, but patients don’t experience the same side effects when given the same treatments for many reasons. That can make it hard to predict exactly how you will feel during treatment. 

Common side effects from each treatment option for head and neck cancer are described in detail within the Treatment Options section. Learn more about the most common side effects of cancer and different treatments, along with ways to prevent or manage them. Side effects depend on a variety of factors, including the cancer’s stage, the length and dosage of treatment(s), and your overall health.

Talking with your health care team about side effects

Before treatment begins, talk with your doctor about possible side effects of each type of treatment you will be receiving. Ask which side effects are most likely to happen, when they are likely to occur, and what can be done to prevent or relieve them.

And, ask about the level of caregiving you may need during treatment and recovery, as family members and friends often play an important role in the care of a person with head and neck cancer. Learn more about caregiving.

In addition to physical side effects, there may be emotional and social effects as well. Patients and their families are encouraged to share their feelings with a member of their health care team who can help with coping strategies, including concerns about managing the cost of your cancer care

During and after treatment, be sure to tell the health care team about the side effects you experience, even if you feel they are not serious. Sometimes, side effects can last beyond the treatment period, called long-term side effects. A side effect that occurs months or years after treatment is called a late effect. Treatment of both types of effects is an important part of survivorship care. Learn more by reading the Follow-Up Care section of this guide or talking with your doctor.

The next section in this guide is Follow-Up Care, and it explains the importance of check-ups after cancer treatment is finished. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide. 

Head and Neck Cancer - Follow-Up Care

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about your medical care after cancer treatment is completed, and why this follow-up care is important. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Care for people diagnosed with cancer doesn’t end when active treatment has finished. Your health care team will continue to check to make sure the cancer has not returned, manage any side effects, and monitor your overall health. This is called follow-up care.

This plan may include regular physical examinations and/or medical tests to monitor your recovery for the coming months and years. Learn more about the importance of follow-up care.

Watching for recurrence

One goal of follow-up care is to check for a recurrence. Cancer recurs because small areas of cancer cells may remain undetected in the body. Over time, these cells may increase in number until they show up on test results or cause signs or symptoms. During follow-up care, a doctor familiar with your medical history can give you personalized information about your risk of recurrence. Your doctor will also ask specific questions about your health. Some people may have blood tests or imaging tests as part of regular follow-up care, but testing recommendations depend on several factors including the type and stage of head and neck cancer originally diagnosed and the types of treatment given.

Managing long-term and late side effects

Most people expect to experience side effects when receiving treatment. However, it is often surprising to survivors that some side effects may linger beyond the treatment period. These are called long-term side effects. In addition, other side effects called late effects may develop months or even years afterwards. Long-term and late effects can include both physical and emotional changes.

Talk with your doctor about your risk of developing such side effects based on the type of cancer, your individual treatment plan, and your overall health. If you had a treatment known to cause specific late effects, you may also have certain physical examinations, scans, or blood tests to help find and manage them. For example, if you received radiation therapy, your doctor may recommend regular blood tests to check the function of your thyroid gland. 

Rehabilitation is a major part of follow-up care after head and neck cancer treatment. People may receive physical therapy to maintain movement and the range of movements, as well as speech and swallowing therapy to regain skills, such as talking and eating. Proper evaluation and treatment may often prevent long-term speech and swallowing problems. Palliative care to manage symptoms and maintain nutrition during and after treatment may be recommended. Some people may need to learn better ways to eat or different ways to prepare foods.

People may look different, feel tired, and be unable to talk or eat the way they used to. Many people experience depression. The health care team can help people adjust and connect them with support services. Support groups may help people cope with changes following treatment.

Keeping personal health records

You and your doctor should work together to develop a personalized follow-up care plan. Be sure to ask about any concerns you have about your future physical or emotional health. ASCO offers forms to help create a treatment summary to keep track of the cancer treatment you received and develop a survivorship care plan once treatment is completed.

This is also a good time to decide who will lead your follow-up care. Some survivors continue to see their oncologist, while others transition back to the general care of their family doctor or another health care professional. This decision depends on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, side effects, health insurance rules, and your personal preferences.

If a doctor who was not directly involved in your cancer care will lead your follow-up care, be sure to share your cancer treatment summary and survivorship care plan forms with him or her, as well as all future health care providers. Details about your cancer treatment are very valuable to the health care professionals who will care for you throughout your lifetime.

The next section in this guide is Survivorship, and it describes how to cope with challenges in everyday life after a cancer diagnosis. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Head and Neck Cancer - Survivorship

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about how to with challenges in everyday life after a cancer diagnosis. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

What is survivorship?

The word survivorship means different things to different people. Two common definitions include:

  • Having no signs of cancer after finishing treatment.

  • The process of living with, through, and beyond cancer. According to this definition, cancer survivorship begins at diagnosis and includes people who continue to have treatment over the long term, to either reduce the risk of recurrence or to manage chronic disease.

In some ways, survivorship is one of the most complex aspects of the cancer experience because it is different for every person.

Survivors may experience a mixture of strong feelings, including joy, concern, relief, guilt, and fear. Some people say they appreciate life more after a cancer diagnosis and have gained a greater acceptance of themselves. Others become very anxious about their health and uncertain of how to cope with everyday life.

Survivors may feel some stress when frequent visits to the health care team end following treatment. Often, relationships built with the cancer care team provide a sense of security during treatment, and people miss this source of support. This may be especially true as new worries and challenges surface over time, such as any late effects of treatment, emotional challenges including fear of recurrence, sexuality and fertility concerns, and financial and workplace issues.

Every survivor has individual concerns and challenges. With any challenge, a good first step is being able to recognize your fears and talk about them. Effective coping requires:

  • Understanding the challenge you are facing,

  • Thinking through solutions,

  • Asking for and allowing the support of others, and

  • Feeling comfortable with the course of action you choose.

Many survivors find it helpful to join an in-person support group or an online community of survivors. This allows you to talk with people who have had similar first-hand experiences. Other options for finding support include talking with a friend or member of your health care team, individual counseling, or asking for assistance at the learning resource center of the center where you received treatment.

Changing role of caregivers

Family members and friends may also go through periods of transition. A caregiver plays a very important role in supporting a person diagnosed with cancer, providing physical, emotional, and practical care on a daily or as-needed basis. Many caregivers become focused on providing this support, especially if the treatment period lasts for many months or longer.

However, as treatment is completed, the caregiver's role often changes. Eventually, the need for caregiving related to the cancer diagnosis will become much less or come to an end. Caregivers can learn more about adjusting to life after caregiving in this article.

A new perspective on your health

For many people, survivorship serves as a strong motivator to make positive lifestyle changes.

People recovering from head and neck cancer are encouraged to follow established guidelines for good health, such as not smoking, limiting alcohol, eating well, and managing stress. Regular physical activity can help rebuild your strength and energy level. Your health care team can help you create an appropriate exercise plan based upon your needs, physical abilities, and fitness level. Learn more about making healthy lifestyle choices.

In addition, it is important to have recommended medical check-ups and tests (see Follow-Up Care) to take care of your health. Cancer rehabilitation may also be recommended, and this could mean any of a wide range of services such as physical therapy, career counseling, pain management, nutritional planning, and/or emotional counseling. The goal of rehabilitation is to help people regain control over many aspects of their lives and remain as independent and productive as possible.

Talk with your doctor to develop a survivorship care plan that is best for your needs.

Looking for More Survivorship Resources?

For more information about cancer survivorship, explore these related items. Please note these links will take you to other sections of Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Cancer Survivorship Guide: This 44-page booklet (available as a PDF) helps people transition into life after treatment. It includes blank treatment summary and survivorship care plan forms.

  • Cancer.Net Patient Education Video: View a short video led by an ASCO expert that provides information about what comes next after finishing treatment.

  • Survivorship Resources: Cancer.Net offers an entire area of this website with resources to help survivors, including for survivors in different age groups.

The next section offers Questions to Ask the Doctor to help start conversations with your cancer care team. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Head and Neck Cancer - Questions to Ask the Doctor

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some questions to ask your doctor or other members of your health care team, to help you better understand your diagnosis, treatment plan, and overall care. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Talking often with the doctor is important to make informed decisions about your health care. These suggested questions are a starting point to help you learn more about your cancer care and treatment. You are also encouraged to ask additional questions that are important to you. You may want to print this list and bring it to your next appointment, or download Cancer.Net’s free mobile app for an e-list and other interactive tools to manage your care.

Questions to ask after getting a diagnosis

  • What type of head and neck cancer do I have?

  • Where is the tumor located?

  • What stage is the cancer? What does this mean?

  • Can you explain my pathology report (laboratory test results) to me?

  • Is it important to find out whether the tumor was caused by HPV? Why or why not?

  • Should I get an additional consultation or second opinion?

Questions to ask about choosing a treatment and managing side effects

  • What are my treatment options?

  • What clinical trials are open to me? Where are they located, and how do I find out more about them?

  • What treatment plan do you recommend? Why?

  • What is the goal of each treatment? Is it to eliminate the cancer, help me feel better, or both?

  • What are the possible side effects of this treatment, both in the short term and the long term?

  • Who will be part of my health care team, and what does each member do?

  • Who will be coordinating my overall treatment?

  • Can you recommend an oncologic dentist?

  • Should I see a speech pathologist before starting treatment?

  • How will this treatment affect my daily life? Will I be able to work, exercise, and perform my usual activities?

  • Could this treatment affect my sex life? If so, how and for how long?

  • Could this treatment affect my ability to become pregnant or have children? If so, should I talk with a fertility specialist before cancer treatment begins?

  • If I’m worried about managing the costs related to my cancer care, who can help me with these concerns?

  • What support services are available to me? To my family?

  • Whom should I call for questions or problems?

  • Is there anything else I should be asking?

Questions to ask about having surgery

  • Is surgery necessary, or can chemotherapy and radiation therapy be used to eliminate the cancer?

  • What type of surgery do you recommend?

  • Will any lymph nodes need to be removed? If so, what type of neck dissection will be done? What does this mean?

  • How long will the operation take?

  • How long will I be in the hospital?

  • Can you describe what my recovery from surgery will be like?

  • What are the possible long-term effects of having this surgery?

  • Will this surgery affect my speech or ability to chew and swallow?

  • How will this surgery affect my appearance?

  • Will I need to have reconstructive surgery to replace lost tissue?

Questions to ask about having radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy

  • What type of treatment is recommended?

  • What is the goal of this treatment?

  • How will this treatment be given?

  • Will this treatment be given at a hospital, clinic, or in my home?

  • How long will I need to continue this treatment?

  • What side effects can I expect during treatment?

  • What are the possible long-term effects of having this treatment?

  • What can be done to prevent or manage these side effects?

Questions to ask about planning follow-up care

  • Will I need physical therapy, speech therapy, and/or another type of rehabilitation after finishing treatment?

  • What is the risk of the cancer returning? Are there signs and symptoms I should watch for?

  • What long-term side effects or late effects are possible based on the cancer treatment I received?

  • What follow-up tests will I need, and how often will I need them?

  • How do I get a treatment summary and survivorship care plan to keep in my personal records?

  • Who will be coordinating my follow-up care?

  • What survivorship support services are available to me? To my family?

The next section in this guide is Additional Resources, and it offers some more resources on this website beyond this guide that may be helpful to you. Or, use the menu on the side of your screen to choose another section to continue reading this guide.  

Head and Neck Cancer - Additional Resources

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2015

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some helpful links to other areas of Cancer.Net that provide information about cancer care and treatment. This is the final page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Head and Neck Cancer. To go back and review other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Cancer.Net includes many other sections about the medical and emotional aspects of cancer, both for the person diagnosed and their family members and friends. This website is meant to be a resource for you and your loved ones from the time of diagnosis, through treatment, and beyond.

Beyond this guide, here are a few links to help you explore other parts of Cancer.Net:

This is the end of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Head and Neck Cancer. Use the menu on the side of your screen to select another section to continue reading this guide.