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 are offered depends on:

The main aim is to remove and destroy the cancer, but your doctors will also try to reduce the long-term effects of treatment. For example, they will plan your treatment so the effect on your appearance and ability to speak, chew and swallow is as little as possible.

Before you decide on the best treatment, it is important to talk to your doctor or specialist nurse about how the different treatments may affect you.

The team giving you your treatment will explain to you what is 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. It is important to check with your cancer specialist first before trying a complementary therapy.

Treating early-stage cancer

If a head and neck cancer is small and has not 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 small changes to speech, chewing or swallowing. People can often adapt to these changes quite quickly.

Your doctors may suggest radiotherapy instead of surgery if:

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

Treating locally advanced cancer

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

  • 2 or 3 cycles of chemotherapy, followed by 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.

The most common question I’m asked is “When will I be able to taste food again?” I try to reassure them that their taste buds could come back. I can taste everything now that I could before.

Murray, hospital buddy for head and neck cancer patients

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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 and grading

The stage of a cancer describes its size and whether it has spread, and the grade gives an idea of how quickly it may develop.