Radiation Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays focused on areas of potential tumor spread to kill cancer cells. For head and neck cancer, this treatment is typically delivered using a machine located outside the body and given in under 30 minutes in multiple, once a day treatments.

At UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, radiation oncologists work closely with their colleagues in surgical and medical oncology. As a team, these experts will tailor a treatment plan for your type and stage of head or neck cancer.

Some people suffer side effects from radiation oncology treatment. Radiation along with chemotherapy can heighten these side effects.

Your care team will try to reduce any side effects of your head and neck cancer treatment.

When Do Doctors Use Radiation to Treat Head and Neck Cancer

Doctors will recommend radiation when they want to target a specific area within the head and neck region.

While you may have radiation alone, your doctor may combine it with other treatments like:

  • Surgery – Combining surgery and radiation can be helpful for those with more advanced head and neck cancers. Typically, radiation is delivered after surgery and can target any cells that weren’t killed through surgery.
  • Chemotherapy– Doctors often combine radiation treatment with chemotherapy for people with more advanced head and neck cancers. This makes cancer cells more sensitive to damage from radiation. Side effects may worsen through this combination.

Radiation Treatment Options for Head and Neck Cancer

The radiation oncologists at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center are among the nation's most skilled in treating head and neck cancer with:

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) – Gives the ability to sculpt the edges of a tumor. This allows for more precision and accuracy, while also reducing side effects. This treatment is typically delivered over 30 to 35 daily treatments.
  • Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT) – Uses advanced imaging technology to monitor the cancer throughout the treatment process (a method of disease management).
  • Stereotactic Radiosurgery (SRS)/Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy (SBRT) – For small tumors, particularly those that have recurred following radiation, this type of treatment may be performed. This treatment typically involves fewer treatments than IMRT delivered every other day to small areas.

Stereotactic Radiosurgery for Head and Neck Cancer

UPMC leads the way in advanced stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS)/stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) technologies for head and neck cancer, SRS/SBRT is a precise and effective type of radiation treatment for cancer.

Benefits include:

  • Noninvasive
  • Does not require anesthesia
  • Does not require incisions
  • Minimizes radiation damage to surrounding healthy tissue/organs

Doctors generally reserve SRS/SBRT for people with recurrent head and neck cancers. 

Common Side Effects of Radiation

Advanced imaging methods, like PET-CT, allow your doctor to target your cancer more precisely with less risk to healthy nearby tissue. These methods may also reduce your treatment-related side effects.

Your doctor will see you at least once a week on treatment to help manage your side effects. You may also experience long-term side effects after completion of radiation therapy.

Common side effects to treatment include:

  • Oral pain and ulceration
  • Decreased saliva and taste
  • Poor appetite
  • Skin irritation
  • Neck and jaw stiffness
  • Hair loss
  • Digestive discomfort (nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea)
  • Fatigue
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased thyroid function

Many side effects due to radiation are worst at the completion of therapy and start to improve 2-4 weeks afterward. Some side effects only are seen in the months and years that follow treatment.

Learn more about managing side effects of radiation.

Why Choose to Have Radiation at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center?

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is the only Comprehensive Cancer Center in western Pennsylvania recognized by the National Cancer Institute.

This means you have access to clinical trials of the latest head and neck cancer drugs and treatments.

You and your care team will determine the best treatment plan for your head and neck cancer.

Contact Us About Head and Neck Cancer

To learn more about Head and Neck Cancer or to make an appointment, you can:

doctor consulting with patient

What to Expect During Radiation Treatment for Head and Neck Cancer

Radiation therapy is different for each person. Your doctor will explain your radiation treatment plan, and how successful it is predicted to be and what to expect before, during, and after radiation treatment.

Learn more about radiation therapy.