General Treatment Options for Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer is often complex, with many different sites and staging systems. However, current therapy offers several alternatives, including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, either alone or in combination.

Combined modality therapy is becoming the principal method of treating patients with locally advanced head and neck cancers. Meanwhile, researchers are actively investigating new treatments such as gene therapy. Newer chemotherapy agents (e.g., paclitaxel [Taxol], docetaxel [Taxotere], gemcitabine [Gemzar], doxorubicin [Doxil]) may be combined with established chemotherapeutic agents (e.g., methotrexate [Trexall, Methotrex]) to improve results.

In March 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved cetuximab (Erbitux), in combination with radiation, for patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck that cannot be treated surgically. Cetuximab also may be used alone (called monotherapy) in patients with head and neck cancer that has spread (metastasized) following standard chemotherapy.

Side effects of cetuximab include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Infusion reactions (e.g., fever, chills)
  • Malaise
  • Nausea
  • Skin rash

Radiation may cause difficulty swallowing, mouth sores, and skin reactions (e.g., redness, itching, burning).

Patients also may want to explore the possibility of participating in a clinical trial. Clinical trials may offer cutting-edge therapy and also provide oncologists, surgeons, and radiation oncologists the opportunity to further refine and improve treatment options. Physician can determine if a patient is eligible for a clinical trial.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 14 Aug 1999

Last Modified: 18 Sep 2015