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When detected early, many forms of head and neck cancer can be managed effectively and even cured. Treatment can vary based on the location, stage and extent of the tumor and the patient’s overall health and preferences. In many cases, the optimal approach includes a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Other options can include immunotherapy, targeted therapy and clinical trials.

Surgery for head and neck cancer

The first-line treatment for many types of head and neck cancer, surgery may be performed on its own or in conjunction with other treatments. The goal is to eliminate as much of the cancer as possible while preserving the physical function, sensory function and appearance of the nearby structures.

Some surgical treatment options for head and neck cancer include:

  • Laryngopharyngectomy – A surgeon removes the voice box (larynx) and a portion of the throat (pharynx).
  • Partial laryngopharyngectomy – A surgeon removes a portion of the larynx and a portion of the pharynx while preserving the patient’s ability to speak.
  • Neck dissection – A surgeon removes lymph nodes and other tissues from the neck for pathological analysis to determine if the cancer has spread.
  • Wide local excision – A surgeon removes the tumor along with a slim margin of surrounding healthy tissue for microscopic evaluation by a pathologist.
  • Transoral robotic surgery – A surgeon guides a robotic arm and tiny camera through the patient’s mouth and throat, then removes a tumor while viewing high-definition images of the surgical site on an external monitor in real-time.
  • Plastic surgery – A plastic surgeon repairs or restores facial features that were damaged by head and neck cancer or its treatment.

Chemotherapy for head and neck cancer

Chemo involves the intravenous or oral administration of powerful cancer-fighting drugs such as cisplatin, which enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body to reach and destroy widespread cancer cells. This systemic treatment may be considered to address head and neck cancer that has spread beyond its site of origin and metastasized to the bones or other organs and tissues.

Chemotherapy is sometimes given as a standalone treatment. It can also be used before surgery to shrink a tumor and make it easier to remove, or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells and help prevent a recurrence. For heightened treatment effectiveness, chemo is sometimes combined with radiation therapy.   

Radiation therapy for head and neck cancer

Radiation therapy involves the delivery of high-energy beams, which are precisely directed at a tumor to minimize any exposure to the surrounding healthy tissues. The treatment may be delivered:

  • Externally – External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) involves the use of a machine located outside the body (linear accelerator), which generates and targets the beams at a tumor.
  • Internally – Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy) involves temporarily placing radioactive seeds or pellets inside the body near a tumor site.  

Immunotherapy for head and neck cancer

Immunotherapy capitalizes on the body’s natural ability to fight cancer by using checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs are designed to help the body’s immune system recognize, target and destroy cancerous cells. Checkpoint inhibitors work by disrupting the signaling proteins found on some cancer cells, which allow those cells to shield themselves from the immune system and avoid destruction by masquerading as healthy cells.

Although the use of immunotherapy for head and neck cancer is currently limited, a physician may suggest Opdivo® (nivolumab) or Keytruda® (pembrolizumab) for treating advanced head and neck cancer, such as laryngeal cancer that has metastasized or recurred.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy involves the use of drugs designed to inhibit tumor growth by preventing cancerous cells from dividing or destroying them directly. One potential target in head and neck cancer is the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a protein found on the surface of some cancer cells. An EGFR-targeted drug may be used in combination with chemotherapy or radiation therapy for certain head and neck cancers, such as laryngeal or hypopharyngeal cancer.

Clinical trials for head and neck cancer

Through head and neck cancer clinical trials, patients can gain access to groundbreaking new treatment options that are not yet available in other settings. These important research studies are designed to evaluate the effectiveness of promising new therapies as compared to the current standard of care. All cancer therapies are evaluated in this way; the goal is to continually improve cancer treatment and ultimately find a cure. In fact, the current standard of care was previously available only through clinical trials.

Head and neck cancer clinical trials may involve:

  • New surgical techniques
  • New chemotherapy drugs, drug combinations and doses
  • New radiation delivery methods
  • Emerging treatments, such as gene therapy
  • New ways to prevent a cancer recurrence

A patient who participates in a clinical trial can benefit from being closely monitored by a team of cancer experts while they receive a new treatment or the current standard of care. Additionally, they can feel good about the role they play in advancing cancer care for all current and future patients.

Frequently asked questions about head and neck cancer treatment

The following FAQs-related articles provide additional information about the treatment of head and neck cancer:

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

A trusted name in head and neck cancer treatment, Moffitt is ranked No. 10 in the nation and the top-ranked cancer hospital in Florida and the Southeast in Newsweek’s 2023 list of “America’s Best Cancer Hospitals.” Our patients have access to all aspects of cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and support in a single, convenient location.

Moffitt’s highly collaborative multispecialty team develops an individualized treatment plan for each patient. If you would like to learn more about the latest options in head and neck cancer treatment, the experts at Moffitt can help. Request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.