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Cancer of the Mouth and Throat (cont.)

Mouth and Throat Cancer Medical Treatment

Treatment falls into two categories: treatment to fight the cancer and treatment to relieve the symptoms of the disease and the side effects of the treatment (supportive care).

Surgery is the treatment of choice for early stage cancers and many later stage cancers. The tumor is removed, along with surrounding tissues, including but not limited to the lymph nodes, blood vessels, nerves, and muscles that are affected.

Radiation therapy involves the use of a high-energy beam to kill cancer cells.

  • Radiation can be used instead of surgery for many stage I and II cancers, because surgery and radiation have equivalent survival rates in these tumors. In stage II cancers, tumor location determines the best treatment. The treatment that will have the fewest side effects is usually chosen.
  • Stage III and IV cancers are most often treated with both surgery and radiation. The radiation is typically given after surgery. Radiation after surgery kills any remaining cancer cells.
  • External radiation is given by precisely targeting a beam at the tumor. The beam goes through the healthy skin and overlying tissues to reach the tumor. These treatments are given at the cancer center. Treatments are usually given once a day, five days a week, for about six weeks. Each treatment takes only a few minutes. Giving radiation this way keeps the doses small and helps protect healthy tissues. Some cancer centers are experimenting with giving radiation twice a day to see if it increases survival rates.
  • Unfortunately, radiation affects healthy cells as well as cancer cells. Damage to healthy cells accounts for the side effects of radiation therapy. These include sore throat, dry mouth, cracked and peeling lips, and a sunburn-like effect on the skin. It can cause problems with eating, swallowing, and speaking. The patient may also feel very tired during, and for some time after, these treatments. External beam radiation can also affect the thyroid gland in the neck, causing the level of thyroid hormone to be low. This can be treated.
  • Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy) can avoid these side effects in some cases. This involves implanting tiny radioactive "seeds" directly into the tumor or in the surrounding tissue. The seeds emit radiation that destroys tumor cells. This treatment takes several days and the patient will have to stay in the hospital during the treatment. It is less commonly used for oral cancers than external radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy is the use of powerful drugs to kill cancer cells.

  • Chemotherapy alone may shrink these tumors, but the effect does not last for long.
  • In head and neck cancers, chemotherapy is used in combination with radiation therapy and surgery for large or extensive cancers and in combination with radiation therapy in other head and neck cancers depending on the site.
  • The side effects depend on which drugs are given. Common side effects include nausea and vomiting, severe heartburn-type pain, diarrhea, hair loss, mouth sores, loss of appetite, fatigue or weakness, and increased risk of infection.

Treatment of recurrent tumors, like that of primary tumors, varies by size and location of the recurrent tumor. The treatment given previously is also taken into account. For instance, a site already treated by external radiation therapy may be difficult to treat a second time with external radiation.

Weight loss is a common effect in people with head and neck cancers. Discomfort from the tumor itself, as well as the effects of treatment on the chewing and swallowing structures and the digestive tract, often prevents eating.

Medications will be offered to treat some of the side effects of therapy, such as nausea, dry mouth, mouth sores, and heartburn.

The patient will probably see a speech therapist during and for some time after treatment. The speech therapist helps the patient learn to cope with the changes in the mouth and throat after treatment so that he or she can eat, swallow, and talk.

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