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Types of Radiation Treatment for Throat Cancer

written by: Peter Boysen • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 10/21/2010

This is a basic overview of three options for radiation treatment for throat cancer. Use this article as a springboard to more questions for your oncologist.

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    What is Throat Cancer?

    Throat cancer develops inside tissues of the pharynx, which is the tube that runs from behind your nose down to the top of the esophagus and windpipe, and after diagnosis many patients are curious about radiation treatment for throat cancer. Cancer in any part of the pharynx is considered throat cancer, and cancer inside your voice box (your larynx) can also count as a variation of throat cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, in the United States over 25,000 new cases of throat cancer are expected to be diagnosed, and just over 6,000 people will die from it.

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    CT Scan of a Throat TumorContouring for IMRT treatment
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    Available Radiation Treatments

    Obviously, when you consider radiation treatment for throat cancer, there will be some risk of side effects. There are several targeted radiation treatments that can minimize the risk of some of those effects, however. One of those is intensity-modulated radiation therapy, or IMRT. This therapy creates a three-dimensional image of the tumor out of radiation beams and projects it onto your tumor, delivering highly focused radiation instead of blasting it throughout your upper body. The beams actually turn and curve around non-cancerous tissue to reach your tumor.

    Treatment centers like the Mayo Clinic deliver IMRT over one or two months. The duration will vary depending on the type, location and size of your tumor, your general health, and the other ways you have been treated for cancer. The oncologists use information from PET scans, CT scans, and MRI's to design your three-dimensional image. Your oncologist may place your head and neck in a support so that it will stay absolutely still.

    Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy is another option for throat cancer. As the name sounds, it is quite similar to IMRT. However, with IMRT, you can adjust the intensity of the radiation during the treatment, and the therapy focuses more on matching the edges of the tumor. Your oncologist will choose between these two treatments as a result of the size and position of your tumor.

    Brachytherapy comes from the Greek word for "short." Instead of shooting beams into your throat, with brachytherapy, your oncologist would take a radioactive pellet and put it inside your tumor, or very close to your tumor. This permits a very high dose of radiation that is focused enough to keep damage from reaching other, healthy tissue nearby. Brachytherapy works for cancers in just about any body cavity, and the seeds can be left inside the cavities or actually inserted into the tumors using needles. Your oncologist may recommend just using brachytherapy or combine it with other radiation treatments.

    Remember -- you are in charge of your health. Don't be afraid to ask your oncologist any questions about your situation, and don't be afraid to get an opinion from another oncologist.

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    External References

    National Cancer Institute: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/throat

    Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.org/imrt/

    UPMC Cancer Centers: http://www.upmccancercenters.com/radonc/conformal.html