Head & Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancers are tumors affecting various areas around the head, neck and throat. Some of the cancers commonly treated at the Indiana University Health Melvin & Bren Simon Cancer Center include:

  • Oral cavity cancer. Affects the mouth, lips, gums, cheeks, tongue, palate and mouth floor.
  • Throat cancer. Affects the oropharynx (behind the mouth), nasopharynx (behind the nasal passage) and hypopharynx (behind the voice box).
  • Laryngeal cancer. Affects the larynx (voice box).
  • Thyroid and parathyroid cancer. Affects the glands on the throat below the Adam’s apple.
  • Salivary gland cancer. Affects the major and minor salivary glands.
  • Skin cancer of the head and neck. Including melanoma malignant skin tumors.
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer. Affects the spaces in the bones of the face that are connected to the nasal cavity.
  • Skull base tumors. These tumors affect the cranial base, a complex and delicate area of the body where blood vessels and nerves enter and exit the skull.
  • Ear and temporal bone cancer. Affects the portion of skull beside the ear.
  • Eye cancer. Affects the eye.

Treating tumors of the head and neck can be challenging because treatment can have an impact on speech, swallowing and hearing. Early diagnosis is critical to improving outcomes and reducing side effects from treatment. Medical teams at IU Health Melvin & Bren Simon Cancer Center devote particular care to helping you maintain these vital functions.

Physicians at IU Health Simon Cancer Center use a full range of diagnostic tools to determine your particular treatment needs. Diagnostic tools include:

  • Clinical examination. Can reveal lumps or other abnormalities.
  • Blood testing. Detects substances in the blood that may indicate the presence of cancer.
  • Biopsy. Removes cells or tissue for examination under a microscope.
  • Computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans. Takes detailed internal pictures of the head and neck, allowing visual examination of tumors.
  • Fiber optic laryngoscopy or nasopharyngoscopy. Uses a lighted tube to examine the larynx (voice box), nose or pharynx (extending from behind the nose to the top of the windpipe), and esophagus (tube leading from the mouth to the stomach).

Head & Neck Cancer Treatment

Our head and neck cancer team is a multidisciplinary group of doctors and practitioners who specialize in diagnosis and management of malignancies of the head and neck. We use all major surgical, radiation and chemotherapy techniques, and each patient receives a customized treatment plan. Our goal is to optimize your treatment while minimizing its side effects.

Within our surgical group, we have fellowship trained head and neck surgeons who specialize in advanced techniques for removing cancers from the face, mouth, throat, voice box, thyroid, salivary glands and skull base. Along with members of the head and neck reconstructive team, these surgeons can repair tissue affected by surgery to minimize impact on speech, swallowing and cosmetic appearance.

Each patient receives a unique treatment plan for head or neck cancer. Particular treatments recommended by our multidisciplinary team depend on the location and extent of cancerous tissue. Your treatment may include one or more of the following:

  • Surgical excision. Removes the cancer, and sometimes surrounding tissues and lymph nodes, to prevent recurrence of the cancer.
  • Reconstruction. Reshapes or rebuilds a part of the head or neck area changed by surgery.
  • Chemotherapy. Uses a series of medication treatments to destroy cancer cells.
  • Radiotherapy. Destroys cancer cells and shrinks tumors.
  • Chemoradiation. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are used together.
  • Chemoprevention. Uses chemotherapy to prevent a second cancer.
  • Dentistry. Maintains and improves the function of the mouth during and after treatment.

Our doctors are experts in transoral laser and microsurgery to remove small tumors in the throat. We use da Vinci robotic surgery to remove tumors—a less invasive surgery with fewer surgical side effects. Proton beam radiation therapy is useful for treating head and neck tumors in sensitive areas near important structures, such as the base of the skull and optic nerves.

Radiation therapy treatments can include:

  • Computed tomography (CT) simulation. A radiation planning process that uses a CT scan to define tumor targets and internal anatomy in three dimensions, allowing the radiation oncologist to precisely target the tumor while saving healthy tissue.
  • Four-dimensional CT simulation. A CT simulation that reveals internal anatomy changes (such as changes in tumor location with the breathing cycle), allowing the radiation oncologist to target the tumor more accurately and protect healthy tissue.
  • Image guided radiation therapy (IGRT). Uses radiographic imaging to precisely target tumors while sparing healthy tissue.
  • Cone-beam computed tomography (CBCT). An IGRT technique that uses a limited CT scan prior to treatment to target internal anatomy in three dimensions.
  • Three-dimensional conformal radiotherapy. Radiation therapy guided by a computer-generated three-dimensional picture of the tumor, delivering high-dose radiation while sparing healthy tissue as much as possible.
  • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). Advanced technology that delivers radiation to areas near or around radiation-sensitive tissues, using a computerized optimization algorithm.
  • Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). Special equipment that delivers high-dose radiation to a tumor without affecting healthy tissue.
  • Endobronchial high dose rate brachytherapy (HDR). Treatment for obstructing tumors in the main airways, performed in conjunction with a pulmonologist. It delivers radiation directly to a tumor inside the body.

If your speech is affected after surgery, a speech therapist will help you recover your ability to speak naturally.

In addition to excellent medical care, we offer supportive care through the CompleteLife Program. This program provides support and education and tends to your emotional, social and spiritual needs.

Head & Neck Cancer Research

Clinical trials at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center bring the latest treatments available to you. If you qualify, you may enroll in one or more of our current trials, which focus on improving treatment for metastatic cancer (cancer that has spread from the original site) and long-term outcomes after treatment for larynx cancer.