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Proton Therapy for Head and Neck Cancers

Cancerous and non-cancerous tumors can occur the skull base and neck, and even benign tumors in these areas may cause symptoms or threaten the health and well-being of a patient.

MD Anderson provides comprehensive care for patients who have benign or malignant head and neck tumors. Treatment options include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or any combination of the three.

The Power of Protons

Proton therapy allows for effective treatment of complicated head and neck tumors, while minimizing the radiation dose to vital structures such as the eyes, mouth and brain. Vital physical functions such as vision, smell, taste and swallowing remain virtually untouched when a patient is treated with proton therapy.

The MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center treats cancers of the: 

Many head and neck cancer patients can benefit from the precision of intensity modulated proton therapy, or IMPT, a treatment offered exclusively at MD Anderson. IMPT delivers protons to the most complicated tumors by focusing a narrow proton beam and essentially "painting" the radiation dose onto the tumor layer by layer.

The need to implant a feeding tube during head and neck treatment, which can occur in up to 60% of standard radiation patients, may be avoided in IMPT patients due to less collateral damage to the oral cavity. 

Side effects such as nausea, damage to the salivary glands, loss of taste and endocrine disorders are also reduced with proton therapy. This enables patients to better maintain their weight and hydration, contributing to successful treatment outcomes and substantially improving quality of life both during and after cancer treatment.

Proton Therapy Clinical Trials

Clinical trials underway at the Proton Therapy Center are dedicated to understanding the advantages of protons for treatment of head and neck tumors. 

This includes the first randomized Phase II/III trial comparing IMPT to standard conformal radiation therapy in patients with oropharyngeal carcinoma, which occurs at the back of the throat. The trial aims to measure proton therapy’s ability to reduce a range of side effects common to head and neck cancers. 

What To Expect During Proton Treatment

Proton therapy treatment for head and neck cancer typically takes about 15-30 minutes each day and is delivered five days a week for 4-7 weeks, which varies based on each patient’s individual case. Most patients tolerate proton therapy extremely well and can continue to work and exercise during treatment and immediately after treatment is complete.

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