Head and Neck Program

Radiation Oncology

The Head and Neck Program at St. Joseph Hospital provides innovative care that offers patients the benefits of the latest medical technology. For example, St. Joseph Hospital was among the first in Orange County to offer a fully integrated Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) system to improve outcomes for patients receiving radiation treatment.

Radiation therapy uses special equipment to deliver high doses of radiation to cancerous cells, killing or damaging them so they cannot grow or spread. Radiation therapy is local therapy. It affects cells only in the treated area. It works by breaking a strand of the DNA molecule inside the cancer cell, which prevents the cell from growing and dividing. Although some normal cells may be affected by radiation, most recover from the effects of the treatment. Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays, photons or electrons to destroy or damage cancer or slow their rate of growth.

Head and neck cancers may be treated with radiation therapy alone or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy:

  • Radiation therapy alone – Radiation therapy is used alone for small tumors or for patients who cannot have surgery.
  • Radiation therapy combined with surgery – Radiation therapy may be used to shrink a large tumor before surgery or to destroy cancer cells that may remain in the area after surgery. If a tumor grows back after surgery, it is often treated with radiation.
  • Radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy – Radiation therapy may be used before, during or after chemotherapy.

External Beam Radiation Therapy

The most common way to administer radiation is to carefully focus a beam of radiation from a machine outside the body. This is known as external beam radiation therapy. To reduce the risk of side effects, doctors carefully pinpoint the exact dose needed and aim the beam with special techniques such as IMRT or brachytherapy. IMRT can shape the radiation field to minimize effects on normal tissue. External beam radiation therapy usually means having treatments five days a week for about seven weeks.

Side Effects

Radiation therapy may cause general symptoms such as weakness, fatigue or localized symptoms depending on the targeted tissues. In the head and neck area, the skin may become red, dry or develop a blister like reaction which usually occurs near the end of the therapy program. The patient may have soreness of the mucous membranes of the mouth or throat, decrease in saliva and may experience sores in the mouth or throat. Patients can also experience change/ decrease in their sense of taste. Many compounds are available to assist with these potential problems.

Clinical Trials

We have many clinical trials available for patients. These trials evaluate the proper relationship of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy in management of head and neck cancer. For more information on clinical trials, click here.