Treatment for head and neck cancer

Treatment depends on the position and stage of the cancer – you may have a combination of treatments.

About treatment for head and neck cancer

Cancers affecting the head and neck are not common. People with this type of cancer are usually treated in specialist centres by a team of specialist healthcare professionals.

For most people, the aim of treatment is to remove or destroy all of the cancer and to reduce the chances of it coming back. The treatment you are offered depends on:

  • where the cancer is in your head or neck
  • the stage of the cancer
  • its size
  • your general health.

  • The main aim is to remove and destroy the cancer, but your doctors will also try to reduce the long-term effects of treatment. For example, they will plan your treatment so the effect on your appearance and ability to speak, chew and swallow is as little as possible.

    Treatments for head and neck cancers include:

  • surgery
  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy
  • targeted therapies.

    Before you decide on the best treatment, it is important to talk to your doctor or specialist nurse about how the different treatments may affect you.

    The team giving you your treatment will explain to you what is involved. They will give you help and support in coping with any side effects. Some people also use complementary therapies to help them cope with treatment side effects. It is important to check with your cancer specialist first before trying a complementary therapy.
  • We understand that having treatment can be a difficult time for people. We're here to support you. If you want to talk, you can:

    Treating early-stage cancer

    If a head and neck cancer is small and has not spread to lymph nodes or elsewhere, it can usually be treated with either surgery or radiotherapy.

    Small cancers in the mouth can often be removed with surgery. This may cause small changes to speech, chewing or swallowing. People can often adapt to these changes quite quickly.

    Your doctors may suggest radiotherapy instead of surgery if:

  • the cancer is in an area that is difficult to reach
  • removing the cancer might cause major changes to speaking or swallowing.
  • Treating locally advanced cancer

    If a head and neck cancer is bigger, or has spread to lymph nodes in the neck, you may need more than one type of treatment. This may be:

  • 2 or 3 cycles of chemotherapy, followed by a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy (called chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy)
  • a combination of a targeted therapy and radiotherapy
  • surgery followed by radiotherapy, chemotherapy or chemoradiation.
  • About our information

    • Reviewers

      This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

      Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.