For more information on our recent data notice, please click here


Treatment Options for Head and Neck Cancers

We treat cancers and benign tumors throughout the head and neck, including:

    Learn More

    See more information on our treatment of these cancers:

  • Oral cavity, including the mouth, jaw and tongue
  • HPV-related tonsil and base of tongue
  • Pharynx, hypopharynx (throat)
  • Larynx or voicebox
  • Salivary glands
  • Thyroid and parathyroid glands
  • Skin cancers of the head and neck
  • Skull base and ear
  • Nasal cavity and nasopharynx
  • Neck

Your Treatment Plan

We make every effort to see new patients within a few days of diagnosis. On your first visit, you will usually first meet with your surgeon, discuss what our pathologists have found about your cancer and review recommendations and options for treatment. Many factors are analyzed, including::

  • Your personal treatment goals
  • Size and location of the lesion
  • Biopsy results (cancer cell composition, stage and constitution)
  • Involvement of lymph nodes
  • Type of cancer and how aggressive it is

As we discuss your treatment options, you may be referred to a radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, or other members of our treatment team.

Types of Treatment


The Head and Neck Cancer Center gives you access to nationally and internationally renowned surgeons with expertise in organ preservation, microvascular surgery, minimally invasive techniques, and voice rehabilitation. Our integrated practice is dedicated to caring for patients in a healing environment, with comprehensive surgical care that works together with the entire care team. We offer:

  • Cutting-edge surgical approaches, including minimally invasive and transoral robotic surgery, endoscopic laser surgery, and novel approaches to minimize scarring and maximize cosmetic appearance and functional outcomes. We are currently the only health care system in San Diego performing advanced robotically assisted microsurgeries that allow surgeons to access tumors that were not previously candidates for microsurgery. The new surgical instrumentation enables cosmetically superior face-lift incisions and can improve lymphatic drainage, diminishing swelling. Better cosmetic results often reduce the anxiety of a cancer diagnosis.
  • The latest clinical research trials, including molecular genetic research for patients with head and neck cancers, and clinical trials in minimally invasive robotic surgery that integrate surgical advances with advanced nonsurgical therapies
  • New medical research, technology, and innovation including endoscopic and robotic surgery of the larynx, pharynx and skull base
  • Access to a full range of reconstructive services, including free tissue transfer, cosmetic and functional reconstructive services, and dental rehabilitation
  • The most advanced treatments, techniques, and information
  • An integrated and caring environment.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is commonly used to treat head and neck cancers, alone or in combination with chemotherapy and/or surgery. If your treatment plan includes radiation therapy, UC San Diego Health's radiation oncology practice is integrated with the surgery and medical oncology practices within Moores Cancer Center. Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), designed to precisely target cancer cells and spare nearby tissue, is the standard approach for most head and neck cancer patients. By reducing the radiation delivered to nearby normal tissue, including the salivary glands and other sensitive areas, it has been shown to minimize side effects such as dry mouth and dental complications in head and neck patients.

Radiation therapy’s use differs with the type and stage of tumors:

  • In many patients with early-stage tumors, the treatment of choice is surgery. Radiation therapy is used following surgery in patients with high-risk features, such as positive tumor margins (cancer cells found at the edge of the removed tissue) or cancer that has spread to regional lymph nodes. In these cases, post-surgery radiation therapy may be used alone or, more commonly today, combined with chemotherapy.
  • In some early-stage head and neck cancer patients, however, the treatment of choice may be radiation instead of surgery. For example, small tumors of the vocal cords are preferably treated with radiation because it is associated with better voice quality than surgery. One head and neck tumor site in which surgery is never the treatment of choice, even in patients with early-stage disease, is the nasopharynx.
  • In patients with locally advanced disease (cancers that have already spread to nearby tissue or lymph nodes), radiation therapy has long been the treatment of choice, typically combined with chemotherapy. These patients may also undergo surgery prior to or following radiation.
  • For patients with tumors in difficult areas (such as those near the brain stem or skull base, or for tumors in the eye or nerves), we may recommend proton beam radiation or brachytherapy. Intensity modulated proton therapy (IMPT) can improve our ability to protect critical areas while providing an adequate dose of radiation to the nearby tumors. Brachytherapy, also used for lip and oral cavity cancers, involves placing tiny radioactive “seeds” near the tumor and also helps spare the surrounding tissues.
  • Radiation can also be used as a palliative therapy, to improve quality of life for some patients with advanced disease.

At UC San Diego Health, your care is overseen by board-certified radiation oncologists who specialize in head and neck cancers and use state-of-the-art imaging and treatment equipment. UC San Diego is a national leader in designing clinical trials, expanding your treatment options and giving you access to the latest head and neck therapies.

For more information, see Radiation Therapy.

Chemotherapy, Targeted Molecular Therapy, and Immunotherapy

Our understanding of cancer, including how genetics contribute to the disease, is advancing rapidly. We can now use genetic testing to predict who will respond to a certain treatment. The goal is to match each patient with the best drug for a particular tumor. (For more about this process, see Moores Cancer Center's Personalized Cancer Therapy.)

The immune system plays a major role in treatment of head and neck cancers. We now use treatments that boost your immune system’s ability to directly target head and neck cancers, through a variety of clinical trials for nearly all head and neck sites and stages. We work in concert with the immune therapeutics effort throughout the Moores Cancer Center to focus this expertise for our head and neck cancer patients.

If you need chemotherapy, it may be in the form of medications you can take at home. For infusion therapy, which is a course of drugs delivered intravenously, you’ll come to our Infusion Center. You’ll see windows overlooking a garden and comfortable chairs that let you put up your feet as you read a book, chat with a family member or talk to other patients. You can pull a privacy curtain if you prefer or you can stroll outside and sit in the garden during your therapy. The center provides snacks or you can bring your own luncheon with you or purchase something from the coffee cart.

Infusion Center nurses can equip you with a central catheter line for your safety and convenience. If you’re having regular treatment or need frequent blood draws, this option may be more comfortable and efficient for you.

Rehabilitation Services

Whether you are recovering from surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, rehabilitation can be a vital part of your treatment and recovery. 

As part of our commitment to delivering the highest level of comprehensive care, we offer:

  • Physical therapy to improve the function, strength and range of movement of your jaw, neck and shoulder and address any issues with scar tissue, posture, balance, endurance and mobility
  • Occupational therapy to address swelling (lymphedema) that may occur after treatment for head and neck cancer
  • Occupational therapy to help restore range of motion of the shoulder after surgery and radiation that could impair any self-care tasks such as dressing and bathing
  • Speech therapy to help with all types of voice or swallowing issues, due to a laryngectomy, an oral cavity or pharyngeal cancer, or a cognitive communication disorder

Our speech therapy services are integrated with our surgery and oncology practices so that each patient receives continuous support and individualized rehabilitation programs.

Clinical Trials

In addition to standard approaches, you may qualify for a clinical trial, which is a final stage of research that involves patient participation in the most promising therapies and advanced technologies. Your physician will advise you if you quality for one or more of the studies currently being conducted. For more information, see Head and Neck Research and Clinical Trials.

Appointments & Referrals


La Jolla



Related Programs

Personalized Care

double helix
We use genetic testing to analyze tumors and tailor treatment to individual patients. See Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy.