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Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

Head and neck cancers may grow quickly. The earlier stage that a cancer is diagnosed, the more likely the treatment will be successful.

Louis de Guzman Portugal and head and neck cancer patient Amanda Ruiz Amanda Ruiz, right, was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer while she was pregnant with her third child. Otolaryngologist Louis de Guzman Portugal, MD, left, worked together with other UChicago Medicine specialists to ensure Ruiz received effective, safe cancer care that also protected the health of her baby.

At the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center, our physicians strive to provide head and neck cancer treatment that is effective and gives the patient the best outcome while preserving as much speech, taste and swallowing function as possible.

Matching the appropriate treatment to the right patient is vitally important in cancer care. For head and neck cancer, treatment may involve a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. University of Chicago experts from surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, radiology and pathology meet regularly to carefully review cases and to work together as a team to develop the best treatment plan for each patient.

Head and neck cancer treatment options are determined by the stage of the cancer, the location of the tumor, and other factors. At the University of Chicago Medicine, treatment is typically provided as outlined in the following table:

Cancer Stage Treatment

Stage I and II

Surgery or radiation therapy.

Stages III and IV

A combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Surgery followed by radiation +/- chemotherapy.

Recurrent and/or Metastatic Disease

In addition to salvage treatment approaches (treatments given after the cancer has not responded to previous treatments), such as surgery and second courses of chemoradiation, we offer many novel therapies as part of clinical trials, including several immunotherapy options.

Chemotherapy Plus Radiation: A "One-Two" Punch

Grant AchatzA combined treatment approach of radiation therapy and chemotherapy saved chef Grant Achatz's tongue from cancer. »Learn more

University of Chicago Medicine physicians pioneered an innovative first-line combination chemotherapy and radiation therapy approach that effectively shrinks some head and neck tumors, reducing the need for surgery. Our experts have published several studies on the success of these regimens.

A sample chemotherapy plus radiation therapy approach may involve five, 14-day treatment cycles. For the first five days of the treatment cycle, the patient will receive multiple chemotherapy drugs and twice-daily radiation therapy treatments during a hospital stay. Then, the patient returns home for nine days. Patients who previously had surgery may be treated with four, 14-day cycles of treatment.

Any patient with any type of head and neck cancer with lymph node involvement may be a candidate for this approach.

Precise Radiation Therapy Treatments

Craig Martin Craig Martin is back to serious running after treatment for stage IV tonsil cancer.

At the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center, our radiation oncologists are internationally recognized for their expertise, and use sophisticated methods and machines to deliver precise treatments that target tumors while sparing healthy tissue. We were one of the first hospitals in the nation to offer intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) to treat head and neck cancer. With IMRT, the radiation beam is accurately shaped to follow the contours of the tumor. The beam's intensity is controlled in relation to its location on the tumor and its proximity to healthy tissues and critical structures such as the salivary glands or the optic nerve.

Our team uses image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT) to ensure that treatments are set up the right way, every time. Before each treatment, our specialists confirm the exact tumor position and make any needed adjustments before treatment begins. Here, our experts have refined IGRT by developing a 3-D imaging system to improve treatment planning. An added benefit of this system is faster treatment sessions since less time is required for set-up at each visit.

Ozzie Giglio Surgeon Nishant Agrawal, MD, detected and successfully removed Ozzie Giglio's "hidden" throat cancer before it spread. Impressed by Agrawal's persistence and dedication, Giglio is giving back by funding research into novel ways to detect early signs of head and neck cancer.

When Surgery Is the Solution

For many patients with head and neck cancer, surgery is the best option for a successful outcome. When patients have advanced disease, our expert head and neck cancer surgeons work with radiation and medical oncologists to develop a tailored treatment plan.

No matter the type or stage of cancer, if surgery is required, our experts focus on providing the most effective treatment to preserve as much breathing, eating, speech and swallowing function as possible. Some procedures may be performed using minimally invasive techniques or robotic surgery, resulting in a quicker recovery and less pain and scarring than open procedures.

At the University of Chicago Medicine, head and neck cancer surgeons perform the full range of innovative techniques to diagnose and treat cancers, including:

  • Endoscopic surgery, a minimally invasive approach that uses thin instruments to remove tumors with pinpoint precision.
  • Transoral robotic surgery (TORS) uses sophisticated robotic technology to remove hard-to-reach tumors through the mouth, rather than creating larger incisions in the neck or jaw. During TORS, surgeons guide small robotic arms to remove tumors. The advanced system gives surgeons a 3-D view of the back of the mouth and throat during surgery.
  • Transoral laser microsurgery (TLM) is a minimally invasive treatment for throat cancers. During TLM, the surgeon gets a magnified view of the tumor with a microscope, and then uses a laser to remove it with precision, limiting the damage to nearby healthy tissue.
  • Partial laryngectomy is the removal of part of the voice box (larynx), which may be performed using minimally invasive or open surgery. This procedure preserves tissue and structures critical to speech and swallowing function.
Gary Hoffman Gary Hoffman sought help from UChicago Medicine experts to correct a failed jaw reconstruction for oral cancer that was performed at another hospital.

When Reconstruction Is Needed

Our cancer experts are skilled at using organ-sparing and reconstructive techniques to maintain a patient’s physical appearance and function during or after treatment. Patients are often referred to the University of Chicago for complex wounds that have developed as a complication of prior treatment. Examples include soft-tissue wounds, aspiration (inhalation of material into the lungs), and osteoradionecrosis (bone death caused by radiation). Our head and neck surgeons work with our plastic surgeons to transfer new tissue to help heal wounds, relieve pain, and give hope.

Immunotherapy: Boosting the Immune System to Fight Cancer

University of Chicago Medicine oncologists are pioneers in immunotherapy, treatments that help the immune system -- the body's natural defense system -- fight cancer. Immunotherapy is less likely to cause the side effects associated with traditional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. In particular, novel immune checkpoint inhibitors help the body recognize and attack cancer cells. A 2015 study by our experts found that the anti-PD-1 immunotherapy pembrolizumab was effective in very advanced recurrent/metastatic head and neck cancers and roughly twice as good as the best currently approved targeted therapy. In this study, immunotherapy was active across a wide range of patients, including HPV-associated and HPV-negative tumors. While still an emerging treatment approach for head and neck cancer, our experts offer these treatments as part of clinical trials, as they hold potential to prolong survival for many patients.

Joe Shanahan "Cancer research saved me and others. We must find more money for it," said Joe Shanahan, a stage IV tongue cancer survivor and owner of Chicago's famed Metro concert venue. Inspired by his own personal cancer journey, and to pay tribute to the late David Bowie, Shanahan staged a concert to benefit UChicago Medicine cancer research.

A Center of Excellence for HPV-Associated Head and Neck Cancer

In recent years, cases of head and neck cancer linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV) have increased dramatically. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States, and is the cause of most cases of oropharynx cancer (cancer of the tonsils and base of the tongue). These tumors are different from traditional head and neck cancers with respect to risk factors and prognosis.

Our team has extensive experience treating patients with HPV-positive head and neck cancer, and is at the forefront of research into how HPV-associated cancers differ in response to treatments, with the goal of tailoring effective therapies to reduce side effects and improve overall quality of life. Examples of outstanding care include robotic surgery, making treatment less intense and therefore better tolerated, and using new approaches that harness the power of the immune system to fight cancer.

HPV-related head and neck cancers

Read a Q & A with Tanguy Seiwert, MD, about the role of HPV in head and neck cancer and how UChicago Medicine specialists are tailoring treatment for people with HPV-associated head and neck cancer.

Many Options for Recurrent Disease

For patients with recurrent disease, options often include surgery in addition to radiation, and experimental therapies. Our doctors can provide innovative approaches and state-of-the-art reconstructions for patients with recurrent cancer. Our treatments can provide pain relief, wound rehabilitation and hope for survival. Patients with recurrent head and neck cancers are often referred after being told "nothing can be done." Our team believes that there is always something that can be done to support patients and their families.

The University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center is a leader in re-irradiation--a second treatment with full-dose radiotherapy--combining radiation with chemotherapy and molecularly targeted agents. In addition, we have a very active program using novel drugs in patients with metastatic disease including several immunotherapy options.