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Head and Neck Cancers & Tumors Overview

As the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in Georgia, Winship is a leader in the treatment of head and neck cancer. Our staff conduct innovative research and clinical trials that are transforming how these cancers are identified, treated, and survived.

The radiation oncologists at Emory Proton Therapy Center work with the multidisciplinary Head and Neck cancer team at Winship, which includes experts in head and neck surgical oncology, reconstructive surgery, medical oncology, head and neck neuro-radiology, head and neck pathology, dentistry, supportive oncology, speech- language pathology, dieticians, social workers, physical therapy, and cancer rehabilitation. Your head and neck radiation oncologist will work closely with these other specialists to customize your head and neck cancer treatment plan and coordinate your care.  We can also partner with a patient’s existing care team, whether they are across town or around the world.

Proton Therapy for Head and Neck

A head and neck cancer diagnosis can be one of the biggest challenges you and your family will ever face. Our team is dedicated to helping you meet that challenge through supportive care using the most advanced treatments available. Proton therapy may be a more precise radiation option for treatment of your cancer to help protect important functions like speech, swallowing, taste, hearing, vision, and voice. Our head and neck specialists will work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan which aims for fewer side effects and improved quality of life.

What We Treat

Head and neck cancers

  • Oral cavity cancer (tongue, floor of mouth, buccal mucosa)
  • Oropharyngeal cancers (base of tongue, tonsil, soft palate)
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer
  • Nasal cavity cancer
  • Paranasal sinus cancer (maxillary, ethmoid, sphenoid, or frontal sinus)
  • Salivary gland cancers (for example adenoid cystic carcinoma)
  • Laryngeal cancer (vocal cords, epiglottis, “throat” cancer)
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer (pyriform sinus)
  • Head and neck sarcomas
  • Re-irradiation

Benign (non-cancerous)

  • Paraganglioma or Glomus Tumor
  • Giant Cell Tumor
  • Skull Base Meningiomas

Skull base cancers

  • Chordoma
  • Chondrosarcoma
  • Esthesioneuroblastoma (olfactory neuroblastoma)

Comparison of Proton and X-Ray Therapy

Proton Therapy

Proton therapy is an extremely precise form of radiation treatment that can often better focus the radiation to match the shape and depth of the target. After treating the target, protons stop, avoiding exit dose radiation through the body. By reducing or avoiding radiation to sensitive normal healthy tissues and organs, proton therapy may reduce some of the side effects that can occur as a result of radiation treatments.

X-Ray Therapy

X-ray based radiation typically requires more beams or angles to deliver the radiation to the target. Unlike proton therapy where the radiation stops at the target, x-rays continue to deliver radiation as they exit through the body. As a result, x-ray based treatments typically result in increased radiation to normal healthy tissues and organs.

Proton Therapy Spares Radiation to the Mouth, Saliva Glands & Voice Box

Proton Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer Illustration
Proton Therapy
Xray Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer Illustration
X-Ray Therapy

Benefits of Proton Therapy

In treatment of head and neck cancers, proton therapy can reduce or avoid radiation to surrounding healthy tissue and organs.

Depending on the tumor location and type, proton therapy may achieve the following benefits:

  • Reduced risk of painful sores in the mouth (mucositis) during treatment.
  • Reduced risk of dental decay after radiation.
  • Reduced risk of problems swallowing (dysphagia or aspiration) during or after therapy.
  • Reduced risk of hoarseness during treatment.
  • Reduced risk of dry mouth (xerostomia) after radiation.
  • Reduced risk of hearing loss after radiation. This is relevant for tumors near the cochlea, such as those in the nasopharynx, paranasal sinuses, or skull base.
  • Reduced risk of hormone imbalances (endocrine dysfunction) which can particularly affect growth and development in children and young adults. This is relevant for tumors near the pituitary and hypothalamus, such as those in the nasopharynx, paranasal sinuses, or skull base.
  • Reduced radiation to the bone marrow and circulating lymphocytes, which may help support the function of the immune system in fighting cancer.
  • Reduced risk of developing a future second tumor or cancer, which is most relevant in younger patients, those with a good prognosis and a long life expectancy, and those patients who may have genetic conditions putting them at higher risk for developing other cancers.

Schedule a Consultation

What to Expect With Proton Therapy

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The first step in your care is a consultation. During consultation, we review your medical history, perform a physical exam, decide if any additional tests are needed, discuss all radiation options that may be appropriate for your treatment plan, make recommendations, and answer questions. 

To plan your treatment, you will undergo a “simulation” or planning session. During this visit our head and neck radiation therapists will help position you the way you will be treated each day. For patients receiving radiation treatment to the head and neck, a custom plastic mesh mask is made.  This mask helps to get you in the correct position for treatment and fits snugly to remind you to hold still during treatment.  You can see and breathe through the mask.  A CT scan will be done to create a picture of you in the treatment position to design your radiation plan. Some patients also undergo an MRI during this visit to help identify the target for treatment. It normally takes 10 days for the team to design the proton treatment plan and perform the quality assurance checks before treatment begins.

Proton therapy is typically delivered once daily during weekdays, Monday through Friday. Most patients with head and neck cancers receive six to seven weeks of daily radiation. A few conditions can be treated in a shorter period of time. While some conditions are treated with radiation alone, proton therapy may be integrated with surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or other treatments as part of a comprehensive plan of care.

Like other types of radiation, proton therapy treatments are invisible and painless.  Most head and neck radiation treatments average 30 minutes each day in the treatment room.

Patients are seen by the radiation oncology physician team weekly during treatment to monitor progress, answer questions, address concerns, and manage any side effects from treatment. Your radiation oncologist will discuss a plan to assess response to treatment and for long-term follow-up after therapy.

Studies on Proton Therapy in Head & Neck Cancer

Our team has identified these studies as examples of the clinical benefits of proton therapy in head and neck cancer.

Patient Stories