Radiation Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer

Radiation therapy is a very important part of the treatment of many head and neck cancers. Head and neck cancers can be treated with radiation therapy alone, after surgery or with chemotherapy or targeted therapies. Your treatment depends on the cancer, its location, your health and other factors. Your OHSU Knight Cancer Institute team will work with you to develop a treatment plan that meets your unique needs.

Radiation might be the only treatment you need for certain early stage cancers. For head and neck cancers that have spread to lymph nodes in the neck, radiation and chemotherapy might be given together.

You might have radiation after surgery if:

  • There is a risk of cancer cells remaining in the area where the cancer was removed (for example, large cancers)
  • The cancer was narrowly removed (doctors call this “close margins”).
  • Cancer has spread to more than one lymph node or outside of the capsule of the lymph nodes (doctors call this “extracapsular spread”).
  • Cancer is tracking along nerves around the cancer (doctors call this “perineural spread”).

You might have radiation alone or radiation plus chemotherapy (called “chemoradiation”) if:

  • Surgery would cause serious side effects.
  • Doctors cannot remove the cancer with surgery.
  • You are not healthy enough for surgery or it could cause further health problems.

Types of Radiation Therapy

There are two main types of radiation therapy for head and neck cancer: brachytherapy, also called internal beam radiation, and external beam radiation.


In brachytherapy, tiny pieces of radioactive material are placed inside the body near the cancer. There are two types of brachytherapy:

  • Permanent (material stays inside your body)
  • Temporary (your doctor removes the material after treatment)

Learn more about brachytherapy at OHSU Knight Cancer Institute

External beam radiation therapy

In external beam radiation therapy, the radiation comes from a machine outside the body. There are many types of external beam radiation therapy, including intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). 

IMRT uses three-dimensional CT scans (also called CAT scans) and sophisticated computer software to create a precise image of the tumor. Your radiation therapy team uses this image to adjust the treatment intensity based on how much cancer is present. Areas with more cancer receive more intense radiation, while areas with fewer cancer cells get less.

IMRT destroys cancer cells more effectively than traditional radiation therapy. It can also cause fewer side effects because it is less likely to damage healthy areas.

At the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, we use the Novalis TX to treat head and neck cancers. This is one of the most advanced radiation therapy systems available.

Novalis TX radiosurgery system for treating cancer.

Learn more about external beam radiation therapy at OHSU Knight Cancer Institute 

Radiation side effects

Most people are concerned about possible radiation therapy side effects, such as nausea or dry mouth. Today’s radiation techniques often cause fewer side effects than in the past. This is because the doses are more precisely targeted to the cancer.  There are also new medicines to help with nausea, dry mouth and other side effects. Your OHSU Knight Cancer team will work together to minimize side effects and help you cope with them.

For more information about radiation therapy for head and neck cancer or to make an appointment, please contact the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute at 503 494-5335.