Radiation for Head and Neck Cancers

Radiation uses high-energy X-rays, electron beams, or radioactive isotopes to destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy can be prescribed before surgery, after surgery, or sometimes as the only treatment.

Radiotherapy treatments are generally given daily for six to eight weeks. Giving smaller doses (called fractions) over several weeks reduces the side effects.

Side Effects of Treatment

Radiotherapy is not painful--it feels like having an x-ray. Radiation destroys cancer cells easier than it destroys healthy cells, but the normal cells receive some damage. Side effects can occur:

  • Fatigue
  • Sore, red skin at the site of radiation
  • Sore throat
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing
  • Dry mouth
  • Hoarse voice or temporary loss of voice

Cedars-Sinai Cancer Institute is a leader in radiation oncology services in Southern California. Our radiation oncologists are highly specialized in treating head and neck tumors.

The center uses state-of-the-art technology. The linear accelerators (X-ray machines that target tumors) allow:

  • Radiation oncologists to tailor the amount of energy needed for each tumor
  • The electron beams to give an extra boost of therapy

Cedars-Sinai uses specific types of radiation therapy to treat head and neck cancers:

Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)

IMRT uses a computer to deliver precise doses of radiation to a tumor, or an area of a tumor. This minimizes radiation exposure to the surrounding normal tissue and to sensitive areas such as the nerves. IMRT allows for more effective radiation doses with fewer side effects than conventional radiotherapy techniques.

IMRT is considered a radiation therapy breakthrough of the past three decades. It uses a series of leaf-like structures (multi-leaf collimation) to block the radiation from healthy tissues.

Image-Guided Radiotherapy (IGRT)

Image-Guided Radiotherapy machine

Image-Guided Radiotherapy (IGRT) is the newest advance in the field of Radiation Oncology. Before traditional radiation therapy treatments are given, a CAT scan is obtained. The CAT scan outlines the areas that need treatment. This helps avoid structures in the head and neck that are sensitive to radiation. With IGRT, however, a CAT scan is taken during treatment. This method improves acuracy and decreases potential errors. Since normal tissues are more protected, the machine can target the malignant cancer cells and more easily destroy them.

The area in the head or neck that needs treatment is outlined. Normal tissues are avoided during treatment.

Patient on the couch (table) receiving an IGRT treatment