Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on a number of factors, including the exact location of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and the patient's age and general health. If you have been diagnosed with head, neck, or thyroid cancer, consider your treatment options carefully. Discuss each type of treatment with your doctor, including how the treatment might change the way you look, talk, eat, or breathe.


Your surgeon might remove the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it. Lymph nodes in the neck may also be removed (lymph node dissection) if your doctor suspects that the cancer has spread. Surgery may be followed by radiation treatment.

You may look different after surgery, and your face and neck may be swollen. The swelling usually goes away within a few weeks. However, lymph node dissection can slow the flow of lymph, which may collect in the tissues. This swelling may last for a long time. After a laryngectomy (surgery to remove the larynx), parts of your neck and throat may feel numb because nerves have been cut. If lymph nodes in your neck were removed, your shoulder and neck may be weak and stiff. Report any side effects to your doctor or nurse, and discuss what approach to take.

Radiation (radiotherapy)

This treatment involves the use of high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external radiation therapy). It can also come from radioactive materials placed directly into or near the area where the cancer cells are located (internal radiation or radiation implant).

In addition to its desired effect on cancer cells, radiation therapy often causes unwanted side effects. Patients who receive radiation to the head and neck may experience:

  • Redness, irritation, and sores in your mouth
  • Dry mouth or thickened saliva
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Changes in taste
  • Loss of taste, which may decrease your appetite and affect your nutrition
  • Earaches, caused by a hardening of your ear wax
  • Swelling or drooping of the skin under your chin
  • Changes in the texture of your skin
  • Stiffness in your jaw, which may make it difficult for you to open your mouth as wide as you did before treatment

Be sure to report any side effects to your doctor or nurse and ask how to manage these side effects.

Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs)

Chemotherapy is used to kill cancer cells throughout your body. Side effects of chemotherapy depend on the drugs you take. In general, anticancer drugs affect rapidly growing cells, including blood cells that fight infection, cells that line the mouth and the digestive tract, and cells in hair follicles.

As a result, you may experience such side effects as:

  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Joint pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of balance
  • Lower resistance to infection
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Skin rash and itching
  • Sores in your mouth and on your lips
  • Swelling of your feet or lower legs

Talk to your doctor or nurse about your side effects and how to handle them.