Advanced Radiation Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer
Head and neck cancer includes many different types and subtypes of cancer, but overall it is relatively rare, accounting for about 4% of all cancers in the United States. It’s more common in men than women. And while younger people can develop the disease, most people are older than 50 when they are diagnosed.
MRO has been awarded full accreditation in excellence of care and safety by the American Society of Radiation Oncology APEx program.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a head or neck cancer, you can find leading-edge technology and therapy, close to home, at Minneapolis Radiation Oncology. MRO is the Twin Cities’ leading provider of advanced radiation therapy for cancer, with 11 locations across the Twin Cities, Brainerd Lakes Area, and Western Wisconsin.
At MRO, we understand the uncertainty that comes with a cancer diagnosis. Our radiation oncologists and care teams are committed to helping you understand the complexities of the disease and how radiation treatment may help with your cancer. Our MRO radiation oncologists provide a level of expertise that comes from working exclusively with radiation cancer treatments and with patients every day.
Since 1981, our radiation oncology specialists have treated over 100,000 patients – more than any other clinics in Minnesota. And we’ve established a reputation as trusted allies in the fight against cancer. Count on the cancer specialists on our team to be here for you, with care, comfort, and compassion.
“My goal is to provide the best treatment possible for each of my patients using state-of-the-art technology combined with personal care and attention. I aim to treat each of my patients as if they were a family member, by informing and supporting them throughout their treatment and beyond.”
Kurt Nisi, MD
MRO | North Memorial
What is head and neck cancer?
Head and neck cancer is an umbrella term used to define cancer that develops from the throat up, including salivary, tonsil, tongue, thyroid, laryngeal, pharyngeal, sinus, and adenoid cancers, as well as their subtypes.
An increased awareness of major risk factors, along with technological advances in detection has led to a decline in incidence rates in recent years. Research and prevention efforts have also helped more patients survive the disease and improve their quality of life during and after treatment.
Head and neck cancers are classified according to the part of the body in which they occur.
Risk factors, diagnosis, and treatment may vary depending on the subtype of the disease.
Laryngeal cancer: The larynx is located at the top of the windpipe, or trachea. Laryngeal cancer, classified as a throat cancer, is one of the most common forms of head and neck cancer. Patients with laryngeal cancer often need voice rehabilitation after treatment to learn how to speak again.
Hypopharyngeal cancer: The hypopharynx is the lower part of the throat, which surrounds the larynx; hypopharyngeal cancer is classified as a type of throat cancer.
Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer: Nasal cavity cancer is a rare type that forms in the space just behind the nose, where air passes on its way to the throat. This type of cancer may also develop in the paranasal sinuses that surround the nasal cavity.
Salivary gland cancer: The salivary glands produce the saliva responsible for breaking down food. Salivary gland cancer is uncommon.
Oral cancer: Oral cancer forms in the mouth. The oral cavity includes the lips, inside lining of the lips and cheeks, teeth, gums, front of the tongue, floor of the mouth, and the roof of the mouth. It is the ninth most common cancer among men.
Oropharyngeal cancer: Oropharyngeal cancer forms in the oropharynx: the part of the throat just behind the mouth, including the base of the tongue, the back of the roof of the mouth, tonsils, and the side and back walls of the throat.
Thyroid cancer: There are several different types and subtypes of cancer that affect the thyroid gland, which helps regulate your metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature.
Radiation technology is proven effective
At MRO, we use radiation, or radiotherapy, to destroy cancer cells. If radiation is the best choice for you, your MRO care team will create a radiation treatment plan just for you, to help you get back to your life in a timely manner. Using state-of-the-art imaging technologies such as MRI, CT, and PET, your MRO care team can pinpoint radiation doses down to the millimeter.
With head and neck cancers, there are several different techniques used. But each of them directs precise doses of radiation at cancer cells, which are more susceptible to radiation than healthy cells. Like an x-ray, radiation therapy is painless. There’s no fear of becoming radioactive during or after treatment.
When radiation therapy is a treatment option for you, your MRO care team will work closely with your oncology care team to provide the information you and your family need in order to be fully informed about cancer and treatment options.
Why choose radiation therapy for head and neck cancers?
Radiation therapy is a widely used form of treatment for head and neck cancer. It can be administered on its own or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy. It is used most often:
- As the main treatment. The cancer can often be completely destroyed by radiation treatment and surgery isn’t needed. This approach can often help to preserve better voice quality and/or swallowing function for many patients.
- For patients who are too sick to have surgery.
- After surgery, to try to kill any small areas of cancer that may remain and help lower the chance of recurrence. (This is called adjuvant treatment.)
- To treat cancer that comes back after initial treatment.
- To ease symptoms of advanced head and neck cancer such as pain, bleeding, trouble swallowing, and problems caused when cancer spreads to the bones.
Radiation treatment options
External beam radiation (EBRT) is the most common radiation therapy used to treat head and neck cancers, including cancers in the throat, tongue, tonsils, and larynx. Generally, two techniques are used.
Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT): 3D-CRT uses the results of imaging tests such as MRI and special computers to precisely map the location of the tumor. Several radiation beams are then shaped and aimed at the tumor from different directions. Each beam alone is fairly weak, which makes it less likely to damage normal tissues it passes through, but the beams meet at the tumor to give a higher dose of radiation there.
Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT is an advanced form of 3D therapy. First, a treatment plan is optimized in the computer planning system, then during treatment, the machine moves around you as it delivers radiation. It shapes the beams and adjusts the intensity of the beams from all angles to limit the dose reaching nearby healthy tissues.
Brachytherapy (internal radiation): is occasionally used to treat head and neck cancers that are located in a well-defined region. Several devices can be implanted, depending on the location and size of the tumor.
Your MRO care team will provide you with all the information you need about how the radiation will be delivered to the tumor.
“My interest in physics first drew me to radiation oncology. The field was exciting to me. I decided to specialize in radiation oncology while in medical school after spending time with the radiation oncologists in Galveston, and I’ve never looked back.”
Nathan Hilton, MD
MRO | Brainerd
Your treatment is a team effort
When you talk to your doctor about treatment options, ask if MRO is the right choice for you. We’ll start with a consultation appointment lasting one or two hours. During that time, you’ll meet with a radiation oncologist.
Once the radiation oncologist has examined you, he or she will discuss treatment options and the pros and cons of radiation treatment for you. A radiation therapy nurse will also be there to help explain treatment, discuss how sessions are scheduled, and provide information on how to take care of yourself during treatment.
Since radiotherapy for cancer requires utmost precision, you’ll also go through a simulation at the MRO Therapy Center. Using image mapping as a guide, your care team will position you as you would be for treatment and take measurements to build a targeted treatment plan and pinpoint the radiation for the best possible outcome.
For questions to ask your provider see our FAQ page.
“By the time I was a young adult, many of my family members had been diagnosed with cancer. Their struggles and courage in the face of the diagnosis inspired me to study radiation oncology.”
Glenn L. Applegate, MD, PharmD
MRO | New Richmond
We make treatment as easy as possible, so you can get back to living your life.
Radiation therapy for head and neck cancer is usually given in daily doses, 5 days a week, for about 7 weeks. Your own treatment schedule will be specifically tailored to you, at one of the 11 locations that MRO has across the Twin Cities, Brainerd Lakes Area, and Western Wisconsin.
Treatment schedules depend on the type of tumor you have, where it’s located, and what type of technology we’ll be using. You’ll also meet with your physician each week to monitor progress and touch base with your nurse, who can answer any questions you may have
Managing side effects of radiation therapy
Many people treated with radiation to the neck and throat area have painful sores in the mouth and throat that can make it very hard to eat and drink. This can lead to weight loss and malnutrition. The sores heal with time after the radiation ends, but some people continue to have problems swallowing long after treatment ends. Ask about swallowing exercises you can do to help keep those muscles working and increase your chance of eating normally after treatment.
Other common side effects of radiation therapy may include:
- Skin problems in the area being treated, ranging from redness to blistering and peeling
- Dry mouth
- Trouble swallowing
- Loss of taste
- Possible breathing trouble from swelling
- Hearing problems
Most of these side effects slowly go away when treatment is over. Side effects of radiation tend to be worse if chemotherapy is given at the same time. Tell your doctor about any side effects you have because there are often ways to help.
Radiation aimed at the head and neck might damage the salivary glands, leading to dry mouth that doesn’t get better with time. This can cause discomfort and problems swallowing and can also lead to tooth decay. People treated with radiation to the neck and throat must pay close attention to their oral health.
How to care for yourself during head and neck cancer treatment
While radiation therapy itself may be painless, it impacts your body in ways that you can’t always see. In order to keep your body strong, here is a list of things to do during treatment:
Drink plenty of fluids and eat a healthy diet. Liquid meal replacements can provide extra calories and protein. Try to eat your main meal early. Some people do better with small, frequent meals rather than one or two large ones.
Your doctor may suggest a feeding tube if your mouth and throat are too sore to chew and swallow. This will help you get proper nutrition, a key part of your recovery.
Listen to your body when it comes to sleep. Don’t push yourself too hard, and rest when you’re tired. You will probably be sleeping more than normal, and that’s okay.
Be kind to the skin near your treatment area. Wash the area with mild soap and water, and do not put hot or cold packs on the skin. Contact your MRO care team before using lotions or ointments.
Find a support group or seek out help to manage the stress that comes with cancer treatment and a cancer diagnosis.
Make sure to tell your doctor about any medicines or supplements you take to ensure they are safe to use during treatment.
Follow your doctor’s orders and contact your MRO care team with any questions.
Life after treatment
After you’ve completed treatment, you’ll have follow-up visits with your MRO radiation oncologist and the doctor who referred you to MRO, especially in the first few months after treatment, to make sure there is no progression or recurrence. During this time, it’s important to report any new symptoms to your doctor right away, so the cause can be found and treated.
Follow-up care varies from patient to patient. Head and neck cancers can present specific challenges, because they affect speech, eating, and drinking. You may experience dry mouth or changes in taste, swallowing and digestion.
Your physician may also recommend home care, occupational or vocational therapy, pain management, physical therapy and/or participation in support groups.
For more information, visit our resources page.