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Radiation Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer

External Beam Radiation Therapy

External beam radiation therapy involves a series of daily outpatient treatments to accurately deliver radiation to the cancer.

  • Painless radiation therapy treatments are delivered in a series of daily sessions. Radiation treatments take only a few minutes, but each session takes about half an hour to get checked in, change clothes, get into position and receive the radiation. For some conditions, radiation is given twice a day, with a four- to six-hour gap between treatments.
  • Treatments are usually scheduled Monday through Friday, for five to eight weeks. However, your radiation oncologist may schedule your treatments more or less often depending on your cancer.
  • 3-dimensional conformal radiotherapy (3D-CRT) combines multiple radiation treatment fields to deliver precise doses of radiation to the affected area. Tailoring each of the radiation beams to accurately focus on the patient's tumor allows coverage of the cancer while at the same time keeping radiation away from nearby healthy tissue.
  • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a form of 3D-CRT that further modifies the radiation by varying the intensity of each radiation beam. This technique allows a precise adjustment of radiation doses to the tissue within the target area. IMRT may allow doctors to direct a higher radiation dose to the affected area and keep more radiation away from nearby healthy tissue.
  • To help you keep still during treatment, your doctor may use a plastic head or shoulder mask. These devices are specially fitted for you and are painless to use.


Internal Radiation Therapy

Also called brachytherapy, internal radiation therapy involves surgically implanting radioactive material into a tumor or surrounding tissue. For head and neck cancers, brachytherapy is often used in conjunction with external beam radiation therapy, but may be used alone.

  • During low-dose-rate brachytherapy, your radiation oncologist implants thin, hollow, plastic tubes in and around a tumor.
  • These tubes are loaded with tiny radioactive seeds that remain in place for one or several days to kill the cancer. The seeds and the tubes are then removed. Sometimes, tiny radioactive seeds are implanted directly into the tumor and remain permanently.
  • For high-dose-rate brachytherapy, your doctor implants hollow tubes in and around the tumor site.
  • After these tubes are implanted, they are then connected to a special brachytherapy machine that houses a high activity radioactive source. According to your doctor's specifications, the seed is automatically delivered from the machine and into the tubes, delivering localized radiation over several minutes to kill the cancer.


Possible Side Effects

Side effects of radiation therapy are limited to the area that is receiving treatment.

  • Side effects can include redness of the skin, sore throat, dry mouth, alteration of taste, pain on swallowing and possible hair loss in the treated area. Fatigue is also very common.
  • Side effects are different for each patient. Medications and nutritional supplements may be prescribed to make you as comfortable as possible.
  • If at any time during your treatment you feel discomfort, tell your doctor or nurse. They may be able to alter the treatment or prescribe a drug to help you feel better. 


Mouth Care During Radiation Therapy

It is important to take care of your mouth, teeth and gums during radiation.

  • Careful brushing of your teeth can help prevent tooth decay, gum disease, mouth sores and jaw infections.
  • Be sure to tell your dentist that you received radiation to the head and neck area.
  • Talk to your doctor or dentist about any problems you are having.