Female Doctor wearing a mask treating patient

Updated March 2021

Head and neck cancers are challenging to treat. Fortunately, scientists have had many successes in developing new treatments for this group of cancers.

The term head and neck cancer refers to several related types of disease.

Types of Head and Neck Cancer

How your doctor treats your head or neck cancer depends on the specific type of disease you have. Doctors identify cancers by where in the body they start, including these areas of the head and neck:

  • Mouth: Mouth, or oral, cancer refers to cancer that starts anywhere within the oral cavity. This includes the gums, tongue, cheek linings, and roof or floor of the mouth.
  • Throat: These cancers can affect the voice box (laryngeal cancer) or the back of the throat (oropharyngeal cancer). Cancer also can grow where your throat connects your mouth to your esophagus (hypopharyngeal cancer).
  • Nose: When cancer forms at the back of the nasal cavity, doctors call it nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Sinus: With sinus cancer, tumors grow in the skull’s hollow spaces near the nose.
  • Salivary glands: This rare cancer can form in any of the salivary glands in the mouth, neck, or jaw.
  • Thyroid: This form of cancers grows in the thyroid, a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the front of the neck.

What to Expect: Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

The type of treatment you receive will depend on the location of your cancer. How advanced the cancer is also plays a role, as well as how quickly it’s growing. Other important factors include your overall health and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Your UPMC medical team has the full range of treatments for head and neck cancer available. These include:

  • Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. Your team can give chemotherapy drugs by mouth, IV infusion, or injection.
  • Immunotherapy boosts your body’s cell-killing immune response so it can destroy cancer cells. Immunotherapy comes in different forms, including vaccines and drugs that directly boost your immune system. Other forms of immunotherapy contain immune cells to fight your cancer.
  • Radiation uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. Doctors often recommend radiation when they need to target a specific area within the head and neck region.
  • Surgery can be used to remove the tumor. Your surgeon may also remove nearby lymph nodes to determine whether cancer has spread.

UPMC Experts Tailor Your Treatment

Your cancer care team will recommend personalized treatment options based on your specific circumstances. Doctors can choose to use these treatments alone or in combination based on your medical needs.

For example, doctors often combine surgery and radiation therapy. The radiation targets any cancer cells that surgery didn’t remove.

Doctors may also combine chemotherapy with radiation to boost results. Chemo increases the tumor’s sensitivity to radiation.

But using multiple treatments can also increase the side effects associated with each type. Your doctor will explain the pros and cons of each treatment regimen. You and your doctor will work together to decide what’s right for you.

To learn more about new cancer research and treatment methods, visit UPMC Hillman Cancer Center online or contact us today.