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Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

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Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on many factors, including your overall health and the area, type, and extent of the cancer.  Radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery, or a combination of treatments may be used to treat head and neck cancer.  In some cases, radiation and chemotherapy may be used before surgery to shrink the tumor and preserve surrounding structures and function.

There are a few different types of radiation therapies that can be used for head and neck cancers.  Radiation therapy is a painless procedure.  Your doctor will prescribe the amount and length of treatment.  Radiation therapy is usually delivered in several doses over a period of time.

External beam radiation uses high-energy beams to disrupt the growth of cancer cells.  Radiation damages all cells, both healthy and cancerous, in the exposed area.  Radiated cancer cells are not able to repair themselves or replicate.  Your doctor may prescribe medication to prevent the side effects of radiation.

State-of-the-art technology has advanced radiation methods to help make them more effective and tolerable.  Three dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D CRT) maps a tumor with imaging scans before treatment.  Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, computed tomography (CT) scans, and positron emission tomography (PET) scans are used to produce images of a tumor and its surrounding tissue.  The images from the scans are combined with a computer called a multi-leaf collimator (MLC).  The MLC produces a 3D image of the cancer and formulates a treatment plan specifically for the 3D image.  This allows direct multiple beams of radiation to be targeted precisely at the tumor and spare as much healthy tissue as possible.

Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a refined type of 3D CRT.  IMRT allows the radiologist to sculpt the edges of a tumor, sparing healthy tissue.  With IMRT, the radiation dose can be changed during a treatment session.  In the past, radiation was delivered in one dose, from the beginning to the end of a treatment session.  IMRT allows the radiation dose to alter and conform more specifically to the shape of the tumor while minimizing the dose received by healthy tissues. 

Brachytherapy is used to destroy cancer cells from an internal source of radiation. Radiation from internally placed radioactive seeds disrupts the growth of cancer cells.  Brachytherapy spares as many healthy cells as possible because it directs radiation to only a specific area.  There are different types of brachytherapy.  Intracavity brachytherapy involves placing the radioactive seeds inside a natural body cavity, such as the throat or windpipe.  Interstitial brachytherapy involves implanting radioactive seeds into or near a cancer tumor.  Brachytherapy can be delivered in high dose rates (HDR) or low dose rates (LDR).  HDR brachytherapy is delivered for several minutes and then withdrawn.  LDR brachytherapy remains in the body longer.

Chemotherapy may be used to help treat some types of head and neck cancer and to help shrink cancer tumors before they are removed with surgery.  Chemotherapy consists of cancer fighting drugs that are given in a series of treatments over time.  There are many types of chemotherapy.  Your doctor may prescribe medication to help reduce the side effects of your treatment.  In some cases, surgery may be used to remove the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it.

The experience of head and neck cancer and cancer treatments can be an emotional process for people with cancer and their loved ones.  It is important that you receive support from a positive source.  Some people find comfort in their family, friends, counselors, co-workers, and faith.  Cancer support groups are another good option.  They can be a source of information and support from people who understand what you are experiencing.  Ask your doctor for cancer support group locations in your area.

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