Oropharyngeal cancer

Radiation therapy

The most common radiation therapy approach for oropharyngeal cancer is called external beam radiation.  This type of radiation therapy applies radiation from outside the body. 
Radiation therapy can be used in the following ways: 
Definitive  Radiation therapy is the main treatment for oropharyngeal cancer. It is used without surgery to cure oropharyngeal cancer. Typically radiation therapy is delivered daily (but not on weekends) for 7 weeks. Sometimes chemotherapy is added to the radiation therapy (chemoradiation) to make it more effective.
Adjuvant  This is when radiation therapy is given after surgery to kill cancer cells that may not have been taken out during surgery. It usually starts about 4 weeks after surgery to allow recovery from surgery. Radiation therapy treatment usually lasts for about 6 weeks. Sometimes chemotherapy is added to the adjuvant radiation therapy (chemoradiation) to make it more effective
Palliative  In cases where a cure is not possible, radiation therapy is used to relieve symptoms of advanced oropharyngeal cancer. Symptoms that may require palliative radiation therapy include pain, bleeding, breathing and trouble swallowing.

How do I prepare for radiation therapy? 

You will meet with many members of the cancer care team, who will help you learn how to look after yourself through radiation therapy, recovery and long term follow-up. They will also talk to you about side effects and how to manage them. It may be helpful to write down questions as they come up, so you can ask anyone in your cancer care team when you see them. 

Radiation therapy mask-making and simulation 

  • Radiation therapy is a precise treatment. In order to make sure, that the cancer is covered by the treatment, you will need to be very still during the treatment, usually for about five minutes. A radiation therapy mask that is made to fit perfectly to your shape, will be put on you during each treatment to help the machine target where the cancer is.
  • You will have a planning CT scan (and sometimes other scans) with the mask on. Your radiation oncologist and radiation therapists will use these scans with all your other clinical information to develop a radiation therapy plan just for you (a personalised plan). Your plan will be checked by the radiation therapy and radiation oncology physics team before it is ready to be used for your treatment. This whole process can take approximately 2-3 weeks.
 

Teeth and mouth care

You might need to have some of your teeth taken out, this will depend on the area being treated and the dose of radiation therapy. It is important to take out any broken or infected teeth before radiation therapy. Taking out unhealthy teeth after radiation therapy can cause problems with the jaw bone.

 

 

Diet, nutrition and the role of your dietitian

Your cancer and its treatment can make it hard to eat and drink. Your doctor will recommend you see a dietitian to maximise your nutrition during treatment as well as while you are recovering. Sometime feeding tubes may be recommended depending on the area being treated and the dose of radiation therapy.
There are two common types of feeding tubes: 

  • Gastrostomy tube (sometimes called a PEG tube): this type of tube is inserted through your abdominal wall into your stomach, with part of the tube staying outside the stomach.  A syringe can be attached to the tube to give you food this way if needed. The tube is inserted using a camera through the mouth into the stomach (gastroscopy) or using a CT scanner to guide insertion directly through the skin. If a PEG tube is needed, your doctor will organise this before starting your radiation therapy.

  • Nasogastric tube: this type of tube goes through the nose down into the stomach and is usually used for short periods (days or weeks). A nasogastric tube can be inserted at any time (before, during or after treatment).

 
 

Speech, voice and swallowing

Your cancer and its treatment can make swallowing and speech difficult. Your doctor will recommend you see a speech pathologist, who can help you with ways to manage swallowing and communication difficulties, during and after treatment.

 

 

There are many other aspects of supportive care that are available, ask your doctor if you have any specific needs.

Side effects

The side effects of radiation therapy start around two weeks into treatment and progress through treatment to peak in the last week or just after treatment ends. The side effects start to improve 2–3 weeks after the end of treatment.

Side effects of radiation therapy depend on:

  • the dose of radiation therapy

  • the area being treated

  • whether or not chemotherapy is added to the radiation therapy.

Each person responds to radiation therapy differently. Some people may experience a few side effects while others may not experience any at all.
The following are some common side effects of radiation therapy.
  • tiredness

  • skin irritation in the treated area e.g. redness, dryness and itching, weeping skin, scaling or sometimes skin breakdown (sores)

  • dry mouth and throat due to loss of saliva (called xerostomia)

  • altered taste, which is usually a loss of taste or sometimes an unpleasant taste in the mouth

  • pain on swallowing or difficulty with swallowing

  • loss of weight.

Most side effects are short lived and may go away within 4–6 weeks of finishing radiation therapy. Some side effects may last for months after you finish radiation therapy and some may be permanent.

Once your radiation therapy ends, you will have regular follow-up appointments so your cancer care team can check your recovery and monitor any side effects that you may have. About 12 weeks after your last radiation therapy session, your doctor will usually arrange for a PET scan to make sure the cancer has completely gone. If the cancer has not gone away after radiation therapy, or comes back in the future, you may still be able to have surgery to try to remove the cancer.

Your doctor may recommend some specific supportive care options to help you during your treatment and recovery.