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Radiation Therapy Side Effects for Head and Neck Cancer

Find out how patients are finding relief from oral mucositis caused by chemotherapy

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Radiation Therapy Side Effects for Head and Neck Cancer

There’s no denying that cancer can be a devastating disease, but in the short term, its treatments can be every bit as debilitating as the illness they seek to eliminate. Every common cancer treatment – including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy – comes with side effects that can severely diminish a patient’s quality of life for days, weeks, months, or even years. However, because each of these procedures works in a different way, and because every patient reacts differently to them, it can be tough to predict just how a given patient will respond to their treatment. That said, each procedure has its own unique characteristics that can inform a patient’s expectations; for instance, radiation typically affects only a small area, which can limit the severity of side effects. So, what side effects can a patient expect when receiving radiation therapy for head and neck cancer? Keep reading to find out.

What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Though the term “head and neck cancer” may suggest a single disease, it actually refers to a number of different varieties of cancer that affect areas of the head or neck, including the mouth, throat, and sinuses. This classification does not generally include brain cancer, which is treated as a separate issue. Common types of head and neck cancer include the following:

  • Laryngeal cancer, which affects the voice box and vocal cords
  • Oral cavity cancer, which starts in the mouth
  • Nasal cavity cancer, which affects the opening behind the nose and above the throat
  • Some forms of lymphoma, if they start in the lymph nodes of the neck

If you have a cancer of the head or neck, you may be treated with chemo, radiation, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, or some combination of these. Radiation and chemo are the two most common treatments, and they are often used in tandem; this strategy can prove effective but also lead to more severe side effects.

Treating Head and Neck Cancer with Radiation Therapy

If you think the word “radiation” makes this type of treatment sound intimidating, don’t worry: It’s arguably gentler on the patient than chemotherapy. That’s because it’s what’s known as a “local treatment,” meaning that it only affects the part of the body to which it is administered. In fact, the ability to target the patient’s cancerous tissue to the exclusion of most of the body is perhaps the primary advantage radiation has over other treatments, since it means that the person will likely be relatively free of side effects – provided another treatment is not used as well.

There are two main versions of radiation therapy, external beam radiation (also called EBR or EBRT) and brachytherapy. The first of these, EBR, uses a machine that directs streams of photons, protons, or electrons at the area of the tumor; before doing so, however, your cancer team will work to determine exactly how much radiation to administer, what spot to target, and how to best angle the beam so that it hits as little healthy tissue as possible. Depending on the type of energy used, the radiation may travel through the tumor and into the tissues beyond it, or it could stop before it travels all the way through the body.

Brachytherapy, the second type of radiation therapy, involves implanting radioactive materials directly into the tissue surrounding the cancerous cells. This allows the treatment to more accurately target the tumor, and it also often means a smaller dose of radiation for the patient.

Side Effects of Radiation for Head and Neck Cancer

Regardless of how the radiation is applied, there is a virtual certainty that it will impact healthy cells in some manner. Radiation works as a cancer treatment because it damages the genetic material of cells, which hinders their attempts to divide; this same effect can happen in the tissues near your cancer after radiation therapy.

Most often, the side effects of radiation are specific to the type of tissue affected. For example, if you have cancer of the tongue and are treated with radiation, the mucous membranes of the mouth might begin to break down, forming a condition called oral mucositis. Other common side effects of radiation for head and neck cancer include:

  • Changes in your sense of taste
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing food
  • Dry mouth or significantly thicker saliva
  • Vocal changes
  • Feelings of intense fatigue

Unlike chemotherapy, in which the medication used requires access to an area to affect it, the side effects of radiation are almost impossible to prevent; try instead to focus on mitigating these effects once they appear. If you develop mouth sores, for instance, turning to cryotherapy using an oral ice pack may provide relief from pain or inflammation, and adjusting your diet to include softer, blander foods might make it easier to eat. If you are struggling to deal with the side effects of your radiation therapy, talk to your doctor or cancer care team and ask for tips or suggestions.

If You’re Receiving Chemotherapy Treatments, Try the Chemo Mouthpiece™

Dealing with cancer and its treatments can exact a serious toll on a patient and their family. Not only are the side effects of radiation quite severe, but this type of treatment is often used alongside others, most often chemotherapy. Though the Chemo Mouthpiece™ is ineffective at preventing the side effects of radiation, it can be very useful to those dealing with chemotherapy, whether it’s their sole treatment or part of a more extensive regimen. A potent cryotherapy tool, the Chemo Mouthpiece™ can help limit the severity of oral mucositis in chemo patients by causing the blood vessels in the mouth to constrict during treatment, which means less access to the mouth for harmful chemo drugs. If you or someone you know is going through chemotherapy, the Chemo Mouthpiece™ may be able to provide some measure of relief; learn more by visiting us online or calling (866) 461-7518 today.


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