Head and Neck Program

Common Head & Neck Cancer Questions

I have a lump in my neck. What should I do?

There are many things it may be. If may be benign or malignant, but any lump lasting longer than three weeks needs to be evaluated by a physician.

Because an advanced cancer was discovered in my throat, my doctor recommends both radiation and chemotherapy. Are both of these types of therapy really necessary?

The three weapons against cancers of the head and neck are radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. The high-energy rays of radiation therapy destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy can also kill cancer cells and acts to enhance the radiation, improving the chance of cure.

I've heard about the side effects of chemotherapy, but are there any side effects to radiation therapy aimed at my head or neck area?

Patients who undergo radiation therapy can usually expect side effects in the mouth and throat. This is because the radiation can harm the normal tissues. It is common not to feel any difference in your mouth for the first few days after your radiation treatments. But, after three to five days, you may feel mild soreness and as the treatment continues, this soreness can increase. These mouth sores (called mucositis) are often accompanied by a change in your sense of taste and a condition called dry mouth (called xerostomia). To minimize mouth sores and dry mouth you'll receive routine checks throughout your treatment plan and your physician may prescribe rinses or medication specifically designed to treat these side effects. Shortly after treatment begins, these side effects begin to improve.

Is there anything I can do to ease the discomfort from the effects of my treatment?

Yes, there are a number of things that you and your healthcare team can do to lessen discomfort.

  • If you are a smoker, and you haven't already quit, do it now. Ask your doctor for help or join a quit smoking program. St. Joseph Hospital offers a Quit Smoking Class. Please click here for additional information.
  • Take care of your mouth and keep it clean. Your physician will recommend that you see a special dentist for a complete oral health exam before you start your cancer treatment. Your dentist may have to provide dental care to prevent future complications.

What you can do:

  • Use a soft bristle brush.
  • If toothpaste irritates your mouth, use a mixture of teaspoon of salt with 4 cups of water.
  • Floss gently no more than once a day.
  • Drink fluids frequently throughout the day. Talk with your doctor about the kinds of fluids you should be drinking. For many patients, sucking on ice chips or popsicles can help reduce the pain of mouth sores.
  • Keep your lips moist with a petroleum-based lip balm.
  • Check with your doctor regarding over-the-counter medication as well as prescription medication to help ease mouth soreness.
  • If you are dealing with a dry mouth, try using a cool mist humidifier to moisten the air in your home.
  • Ask your doctor about medications that are useful for dry mouth during and after your course of therapy.

My doctor noticed that I am losing weight since starting my treatment. What can I do to maintain my weight?

It is essential to maintain proper nutrition and maintain your weight by taking in adequate calories while receiving your cancer treatment. This may require a change in your diet. Talk to your doctor or healthcare team about your concerns. Some suggestions:

  • Try grinding up or pureeing your food in a blender
  • Add calories by adding fat to each meal with olive oil or whipping cream
  • Avoid spicy foods/choose more mild seasonings
  • Avoid citrus drinks
  • Eat foods at room temperature rather than hot
  • Keep track of your weight, food and supplement intake and review this with your doctor
  • Eat more frequent meals

For some patients, a temporary feeding tube may be recommended. A PEG tube is a soft, rubber tube placed into the stomach wall where nutritional supplements can be delivered. This method can prevent severe weight loss, reduce pain when swallowing and help you stay strong.