Radiation Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer

Using Radiation Therapy to Treat Head and Neck Cancer at Virginia Mason in Seattle

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays aimed at the tumor site to kill cancer cells. In many cases this treatment is used after surgery to destroy any remaining cancerous cells in the head and neck. In some cases, the purpose of radiation therapy is to cure the patient of cancer. Such treatment is called curative radiotherapy or primary radiation therapy. To be curative, the treatment must eradicate every cancer cell or prevent them from growing and multiplying. High doses are often required when the aim of the radiation therapy is to cure.

Radiation therapy may also be used to relieve cancer symptoms, even when cure is not possible. This type of treatment is called palliative radiotherapy. Palliative radiation therapy usually requires fewer treatments than curative radiation therapy because not all of the cancer cells have to be eradicated to relieve the symptoms.

Physicians who administer radiation therapy are called radiation oncologists. At your initial consultation, the radiation oncologist will review information about your diagnosis, including the expected outcome, potential side effects and reasonable alternatives to radiation therapy. The physician may request additional tests, such as a CT scan, to help with planning.

Next, he or she does what is called a simulation to plan your treatment. This includes x-rays, measuring, constructing a mask, marking the location to be treated so it will align the machine with that area and taking photos. Great care is taken to ensure accurate treatment and to safeguard your good tissue.

Usually, radiation therapy is delivered in a series of treatments over 6 to 7 weeks, on a Monday through Friday schedule. Appointments usually last 15 to 20 minutes, although the radiation treatment is only one to two minutes in length.

During your treatment you are being carefully monitored from outside the room. Occasionally x-ray films are taken during the procedure to make sure you are positioned accurately.

In the process of killing cancer cells, radiation therapy may also damage healthy cells. Your radiation oncologist will review the potential side effects of your radiation treatment with you.

New Radiation Therapy Technology at Virginia Mason, Seattle

At Virginia Mason, we continue to incorporate new technologies into the care of our head and neck cancer patients. The latest addition to our technology is Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT).

With IMRT, treatment planning is accomplished with a simple and quick CT scan through the head and neck region. A three-dimensional plan is then constructed by the radiation oncologist and dosimetrist that precisely contours the radiation dose to treat the head and neck and avoid normal structures such as the eyes and brain.

The technology represents an improvement over conventional radiation therapy in that the planning and delivery of treatment is more rapid, and the dose distribution is more uniform, resulting in less skin and soft tissue reactions.

We are excited to be able to offer this new technology to some of our head and neck cancer patients and anticipate additional innovations in the future.