Head & Neck Cancers

Cancers of the head and neck usually begin in the thin, flat squamous cells that line the surfaces inside the mouth, throat, and larynx (voice box). These cancers are called squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck. Head and neck cancers can also begin in the salivary glands, sinuses, muscles, or nerves in the head and neck, but these are much less common than squamous cell carcinomas.

Head and neck cancers can form in the mouth, throat, voice box, nasal cavity and the sinuses near the nose, and salivary glands. Cancers of the brain, eye, esophagus, thyroid gland, and the skin of the head and neck are not usually classified as head and neck cancers. Cancers of the head and neck account for nearly 4 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S.

Studies show that people treated for squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck by experienced providers and facilities using radiation tend to live longer. Since these cancers are not common in the U.S. and are located near many critical structures in your head and neck, it’s very important to go to a radiation oncologist who has experience treating them.

Our physicians are well versed in the treatment of head and neck cancers, and our support staff will make your treatment journey as easy as possible. We have offices in Louisville and just across the river in Jeffersonville for your convenience. Learn more about our physicians.

Types of head and neck cancers

There are five primary types of head and neck cancers: laryngeal (voice box) and hypopharyngeal (lower throat) cancer, nasopharyngeal (upper throat) cancer, salivary gland cancer, oral cavity (mouth) and oropharyngeal (throat) cancer, and nasal cavity (nose) and paranasal sinuses (sinus) cancer.

Before you begin treatment for one of these cancers, we advise that you go to a dentist for any necessary dental work or treatment. Cancer therapies tend to weaken the immune system, which can make existing dental problems worse.

Risk factors for head and neck cancers

There are several known risk factors for head and neck cancers. Some of these are preventable—but others are not. Here are some of the top risk factors:



Medical History

Weakened Immune System

Tobacco & Alcohol Use

Infection with HPV or EBV

Diet Low in Fruits & Vegetables

  • Gender. Men are two to three times more likely to develop head and neck cancers than women.
  • Age. Most head and neck cancer patients are older than 55 at diagnosis, though those over the age of 40 are at an increased risk.
  • Medical history. Individuals who have already had one type of head and neck cancer are more likely to develop another in the future.
  • Weakened immune system. Having a weakened immune system has been linked to a higher risk of head and neck cancer.
  • Tobacco and alcohol use. Heavy smokers and heavy drinkers have a risk about 30 times higher than that of non-smokers and non-drinkers. Tobacco use includes any tobacco product that exposes your head, mouth, and neck to the contaminants in tobacco: chewing tobacco, snuff, snus, dip, smokeless tobacco, and clove cigarettes.
  • Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) or Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). HPV DNA is found in about 2 of 3 oropharyngeal cancers, and EBV is linked to the development of nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables.

For a full list of known risk factors, visit Cancer.net.

Radiotherapy for head and neck cancers

There are numerous head and neck cancer medical procedures including surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and, of course, radiation therapy.

Radiation is used as the main treatment for early-stage cancers, for people who are too sick to have surgery, as adjuvant treatment after surgery, to treat recurring cancers, and to provide palliative care for advanced cancers by easing symptoms such as pain, bleeding, or trouble swallowing.

The primary type of radiation therapy used in head and neck cancers is external beam radiation therapy, which focuses radiation from a source outside the body on the cancer. Before your treatment starts, we will use a CT scan to take careful measurements to determine the correct angles for aiming the radiation beam and then create a head and neck mask to hold your shoulders in the exact same position for each treatment. Depending on the type of cancer, you may also be fitted for a bite block that you will hold in your mouth while you’re under treatment. A standard treatment protocol is usually given in daily fractions (doses), five days a week, for about seven weeks.

Brachytherapy, also known as internal radiation therapy, is another treatment method. In this procedure, very thin metal rods or wires carrying small pellets of radioactive materials are placed in or very near the cancer.

Chemoradiation—chemotherapy given at the same time as radiation therapy—is another head and neck cancer treatment protocol. Combining these two methods can be more effective than radiation alone, but it can more side effects.

Finally, if you’re undergoing a head and neck cancer medical procedure and you smoke, we urge you to quit. If you keep smoking, the cancer may not shrink as well, you might have more side effects, and you might get less benefit from your treatment. Additionally, smoking increases the risk of getting a recurrence or a new cancer.

Information on this page is sourced from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute.

Head & Neck Cancer Resources

Are you being treated for head & neck cancer? Here are some resources to help you better understand your treatment; how to prepare for treatment; and what to expect before, during, and after treatment occurs.

Cancers We Treat

Our physicians treat a wide variety of cancers. You can view the full list here, or you can click below to learn about the cancers we most commonly treat.


Radiation is often the treatment of choice for prostate cancer. It is used as the first line treatment for cancer that is low-grade and still confined to the prostate. It’s used as part of the first treatment for cancers that have grown outside the prostate gland and into nearby tissues. It is also used in cases of recurrent prostate cancer, and to help prevent or relieve symptoms in advanced cases. We offer intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), image guided radiation therapy (IGRT), stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) for recurrence in selected patients, and radiopharmaceutical treatments including radium 223 and Pluvicto (lutetium 177).

Learn more about prostate cancer


Some people with breast cancer will need radiation in addition to other treatments.  Radiation therapy can be used after breast-conserving surgery to help lower the chance the cancer will come back in the same breast or nearby lymph nodes. It can also be used after a mastectomy, especially if the cancer was larger than about 2 inches, if cancer is found in many lymph nodes, or if certain surgical margins have cancer cells. It is also used when breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body such as the bones, spinal cord, or brain.

Learn more about breast cancer


In select cases, stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) for lung cancer can provide great benefits to patients with both small cell and non-small cell tumors that have not spread throughout the lung. It’s also useful when lung cancers have metastasized (spread) to other areas of the body like the chest cavity, brain, or other organs. It is used in non-small cell lung cancer before surgery to shrink the tumor, if the patient isn’t healthy enough for surgery, if the tumor has spread too far to be treated with surgery, and after surgery to kill any tumor cells that might still be in the body. For patients with small cell lung cancer, it’s used to treat the tumor and lymph nodes in the chest, for people who can’t tolerate chemoradiation, or it may be given prophylactically (as prevention) to help minimize the risk of the cancer spreading to the brain.

Learn more about lung cancer


According to the American Cancer Society, radiation therapy for bladder cancer is used after surgery that does not remove the whole bladder (such as TURBT). It’s also used as the main treatment for people with early-stage cancers who can’t have surgery or chemotherapy to try to avoid cystectomy (surgery to remove the bladder), as part of treatment for advanced bladder cancer, and to help prevent or treat symptoms caused by advanced bladder cancer.

Learn more about bladder cancer


Cancer can affect a lot of areas of the head and neck including the nose, mouth, tongue, salivary glands, throat, and larynx (voice box). It’s critical that these patients use a radiation oncology provider who is experienced in head and neck cancer medical procedures. Radiation is used in several ways to treat head and neck cancers. First, it may be used alone, for small cancers or people who can’t have surgery. It can be used before or after surgery, along with chemotherapy (chemoradiation), to kill any remaining cancer cells or shrink the size of large tumors, as well as for treating recurrences and ease symptoms.

Learn more about head and neck cancers


There are several types of skin cancer, the most common of which are basal and squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Radiation treatment for skin cancer can be used after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells, to treat recurring or metastasized melanoma, or to provide palliative care. In the treatment of skin cancers, radiation can be combined with other treatments such as chemotherapy or surgery.

Learn more about skin cancer


Other types of cancer we treat include:

  • Brain Cancer
  • Mesothelioma
  • Cervical Cancer
  • Ovarian Cancer
  • Colon & Rectal Cancers
  • Pancreatic Cancer
  • Endometrial Cancer
  • Gynecologic Cancers
  • Sarcoma
  • Hypopharyngeal Cancer
  • Kidney Cancer
  • Testicular Cancer
  • Laryngeal Cancer
  • Thyroid Cancer
  • Liver Cancer

Schedule Your Appointment Today

If you are referred for radiation therapy during your cancer care, you get to choose where to receive treatment. We are here to support and encourage you—call us today to schedule your first appointment with one of our radiation oncologists at the cancer center nearest to you.