Treatment overview

  • Decisions about treatment

    Your doctors may tell you there are different options for your treatment. Having the right information will help you make the right decision for you.

  • Surgery

    Surgery involves removing all or part of the cancer with an operation. It is an important treatment for many cancers.

  • Radiotherapy

    Radiotherapy is the use of high-energy rays, usually x-rays and similar rays (such as electrons) to treat cancer.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy uses drugs to treat many different types of cancer. It is most commonly given as an injection into a vein or as tablets or capsules.

  • Targeted (biological) therapies

    Targeted (biological) therapies interfere with the way cells grow and divide.

  • Supportive and other treatments

    Other treatments can be used as part of the main cancer treatment and to treat side-effects.

  • Clinical trials

    Many people are offered a trial as part of treatment. Find out more to help you decide if a trial is right for you.

  • Life after cancer treatment

    You might be thinking about how to get back to normal following treatment. Find advice, information and support about coping with and after cancer.

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 Head & neck cancers

Diagnosing

causes and risk factors of head and neck cancers

Organising

the practical, work and financial side

Coping

with and after treatment for head and neck cancers

Resources

and publications to order, download and print