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What to Know About Your Treatment Choices for Head and Neck Cancer

Researchers are continually finding new ways to treat head and neck cancer. People diagnosed with it now have more hope for survival than ever before.

The choices you have for treatment depend on these factors:

  • Type, size, and location of the cancer

  • Results of lab tests

  • Extent of the disease, called the stage

  • Status of your health

  • Your age

  • Your personal concerns and preferences

Many people want to learn everything they can about their disease and treatment choices so that they can make confident decisions about their care. If you're one of them, you're likely to have questions and concerns about your treatment.

Your doctor is the best person to answer your questions. He or she can explain what the treatment choices are, how successful they are expected to be, what the risks and side effects may be, and how much it is likely to cost.

Types of treatment for head and neck cancer

Treatment for cancer is either local or systemic. Or you may have both. You may have one type of treatment or a combination of treatments.

Local treatments remove, destroy, or control cancer cells in one certain place in the body. Surgery and radiation are local treatments.

Systemic treatments destroy or control cancer cells throughout the entire body. Chemotherapy and targeted therapy are examples.

Goals of treatment for head and neck cancer

Each type of treatment has a different goal. Here is a list of head and neck cancer treatments and their goals:

  • Radiation therapy. Radiation uses X-rays to kill cancer cells. This is sometimes the only type of treatment used for head and neck cancer. More often it will be used together with radiation or targeted therapy. And it is sometimes used to shrink a tumor before surgery so that a smaller operation can be done or to get rid of any cancer cells that are left after surgery. Radiation may also be used if the cancer comes back after initial treatment. Radiation only treats cancers in the area that is radiated.

  • Surgery. The goal of surgery is to take out a tumor from the head and neck region and from lymph nodes if the cancer has spread to them. The smaller the operation, the higher the chance of keeping functions such as speaking and swallowing. Surgeons may also insert ports for chemotherapy and may place feeding tubes. 

  • Chemotherapy. This is the use of drugs to treat the cancer. The goal of chemotherapy is to reduce the chance that the cancer will spread to other parts of your body. Chemotherapy given before definitive therapy, such as radiation, is called radiosensitizing treatment. It can be followed by radiation or it can be the primary treatment. Chemotherapy may also be used for more advanced cancers, when radiation or surgery cannot be used, or for disease that has spread.

  • Targeted therapy. This treatment uses drugs that target specific parts of cancer cells. For example, many head and neck cancer cells have too much of a protein called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), which helps them grow. The most commonly used drug of this type is called Erbitux (cetuximab). Drugs that target EGFR are sometimes used to treat head and neck cancers.

New treatment methods are tested in clinical trials. Before beginning treatment, ask your doctor if there are any clinical trials you should consider.


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