Treatment overview

Cancers affecting the head and neck are not common. People with this type of cancer are usually treated in specialist centres by a team of healthcare professionals.

For most people, the aim of treatment is to remove or destroy all of the cancer and to reduce the chances of it coming back. The treatment you’re offered will depend on:

  • where the cancer is in your head or neck
  • the stage of the cancer
  • its size
  • your general health.

The most important factor when trying to cure the cancer is making sure that all the cancer is removed or destroyed. But your doctors will also try to reduce the long-term effects of treatment. For example, they will plan your treatment so that your appearance and ability to speak, chew and swallow are affected as little as possible.

Before you decide on the best treatment, it’s important to discuss with your doctor or nurse specialist how the different treatments may affect you.

The team giving you your treatment will explain to you what’s involved. They will give you help and support in coping with any side effects. Some people also use complementary therapies to help them cope with treatment side effects. Most cancer specialists are happy for their patients to use complementary therapies but it’s important to check with them first before trying a complementary therapy.

Treating early-stage cancer

If the tumour is small and hasn’t spread to lymph nodes or elsewhere, it can usually be treated with either surgery or radiotherapy.

Small cancers in the mouth can often be removed with surgery. This may cause only small changes to speech, chewing or swallowing. People can often adapt to these changes quite quickly.

Your doctors may suggest radiotherapy rather than surgery, if:

  • the cancer is in an area that is difficult to reach
  • removing the cancer might cause major changes in speaking or swallowing.

Treating locally advanced cancer

If a head and neck cancer is larger, or has spread to lymph nodes in the neck, you may need more than one type of treatment. This may be either:

  • a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy – called chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy
  • a combination of a targeted therapy and radiotherapy
  • surgery followed by radiotherapy, chemotherapy or chemoradiation.

Back to Understanding your diagnosis

Just been diagnosed

Just been diagnosed with cancer? We're here for you every step of the way. There are many ways we can help.

Staging

The stage of a cancer describes its size and whether it has spread. This information helps doctors decide on the best treatment for you.

My Cancer Treatment

Macmillan is supporting a new online tool to help you make decisions about your treatment and care. The tool currently only covers England.

Before treatment starts

You will see different specialists before treatment starts. They help prepare you for the effects of treatment and give you advice.