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Overview of treatment for head and neck cancer

Bruce E Brockstein, MD
Kerstin M Stenson, MD, FACS
Shiyu Song, MD, PhD
Section Editors
Marshall R Posner, MD
Marvin P Fried, MD, FACS
David M Brizel, MD
Deputy Editor
Michael E Ross, MD


Most head and neck cancers begin in the mucosal surfaces of the upper aerodigestive tract, and these are predominantly squamous cell carcinomas.

An overview of treatment for head and neck squamous cell carcinomas will be presented here. An overview of the diagnostic approach and staging of head and neck cancers is presented separately. (See "Overview of the diagnosis and staging of head and neck cancer".)

Malignancies arising in other organs within the head and neck regions are discussed in the relevant site-specific topics.


A multidisciplinary approach is required for optimal decision making, treatment planning, and posttreatment response assessment. This should include surgeons, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists, as well as dentists, speech/swallowing pathologists, dieticians, and rehabilitation therapists. Specifically, a multidisciplinary tumor board affects diagnostic and treatment decisions in a significant number of patients with newly diagnosed head and neck tumors [1].

Furthermore, complex cases of head and neck cancer should be treated at high-volume centers whenever possible, where expertise in each of these disciplines may be better [2,3]. An analysis of outcomes from a large randomized trial (Radiation Therapy Oncology Group [RTOG] 0129) found that patients treated at centers with historically high accrual to head and neck clinical trials had a significantly better five-year overall survival rate compared with those treated at centers with historically low accrual (69 versus 51 percent) [4]. These differences could not be explained based upon differences in the prognostic factors of enrolled patients [1,3,5].

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Jul 12, 2016.
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