Head and neck cancer is cancer that is in the mouth, nose, or throat. Affected areas can include:

  • Lips
  • Tongue
  • Salivary glands
  • Pharynx: the tube that starts behind the nose and goes down the throat
  • Larynx: the voice box
Organs affected by head and neck cancer

In 2012, approximately 50,000 people in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with cancers of the head and neck. Treatment depends on the site and stage of the cancer. Treatment may include one or more of the following:

Saving organ function may be an important treatment goal. Organs of the head and neck play a critical role in daily life. For example, in patients with cancer of the larynx, preserving the ability to speak may be a major concern. For these patients, efforts are made to keep the larynx intact during therapy. Follow-up care is a key part of the treatment plan for patients with this kind of cancer.

Chemotherapy Can Cause Side Effects

Chemotherapy stops or slows the growth of cancer cells. Often, cancer cells are fast growing. But chemo also damages healthy cells that divide quickly. These healthy cells can include cells in the bone marrow that make blood, cells in the lining of the gut and mouth, and hair cells. Damage to healthy cells is what causes many chemo side effects. Here's how it works:

  • When chemo damages healthy blood cells, the result can be:
  • Chemo may damage healthy cells in the stomach. The chemo drugs then irritate these areas, which could result in nausea and vomiting. Chemotherapy drugs may also trigger signals in the brain that tell your body to vomit.
  • When chemo affects healthy cells surrounding hair follicles, the result can be hair loss. Hair loss is also known as alopecia.

Chemo can cause many other side effects, but the good news is that there are ways to manage them.

Learn more about chemo side effects and how to manage them.

A Closer Look: Jimmy*
A young husband and father, Jimmy learns he has a large tumor in his sinus cavity.
His doctor prescribes radiation and a chemo treatment to shrink the tumor. After, the doctor plans to have the tumor removed with surgery.
Jimmy's doctor tells him that radiation and the chemo treatment are known to cause certain side effects. These include:
Jimmy is afraid to speak with his doctor or ask too many questions. He doesn't want to be a bother.
He brings his wife along to some of his visits. She asks the doctor about how to prepare for or help prevent chemo side effects.
Jimmy also learns that he will get an anti-nausea drug during chemo that will help prevent vomiting.

*This is a fictional case study based on chemo patient experiences. Your experience is unique. Your doctor and care team will create a plan that will best treat your type of cancer and manage your chemo side effects.

Learn more about managing chemo side effects and make sure to speak with your doctor and care team to plan for managing side effects!

Check out these questions to help you prepare.

Click here for a discussion guide about chemotherapy and infection to use with your health care team.

Head and Neck Cancer Resources

  • Getting Started:
    Questions Worksheet

  • The Chemotherapy and Infection Discussion Guide can help you understand your
    chance for infection

    Infection can be a serious result of chemo. Find out the factors that affect your chance of infection. Simply answer a few questions, and then print your results to share with your doctor.

    Use the Chemotherapy and Infection Discussion Guide to find out more.

  • Survivor Story

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  • Want to learn about specific side effects?