Proton Therapy for Head and Neck Cancers

More than 60,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with head and neck cancer. When treating head and neck tumors, it’s critical to protect the delicate organs that surround the tumor. Proton therapy provides greater precision than X-rays and results in less damage to the surrounding healthy tissue, making it a particularly good for treatment for head and neck tumors.1-10

As part of an innovative cancer care network, the team at Northwestern Medicine Proton Center can help you understand your treatment options and the advantages of proton therapy for your diagnosis.

Proton therapy may be appropriate for the following head and neck tumors:7,8,12

  • Nasopharynx (back of the nose where it meets the throat)
  • Nasal (nose) cavity
  • Paranasal sinuses (sinuses in the face)
  • Oropharynx (area of the throat at the back of the mouth), including the tonsils and base of tongue

The Proton Center is one of the few proton therapy centers throughout the Midwest and the only one in Illinois. Our team is dedicated to explaining all of your treatment options for head and neck cancers and facilitating a conversation with you and your physician or oncologist to determine the best course of treatment for you.

To learn if you can benefit from proton therapy, call 1.877.887.5807 or fill out our online form.

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Proton Center Tom Garrett Patient Story
Watch a Video: Proton Therapy for Head/Neck Cancer To learn more about other tumor types, visit our Video Library.

Advantages of Proton Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer

Protons can be controlled with greater precision than standard radiation, which means that more energy goes into destroying the tumor and less radiation is delivered to surrounding healthy tissue. For this reason, proton therapy can substantially reduce damage to eyes, optic nerves, salivary glands, and other tissue and organs near head and neck tumors.7-9 Proton therapy also reduces the likelihood of side effects such as blindness, hearing deterioration and dry mouth.8,11

A recent study from MD Anderson found that the use of feeding tubes in oropharyngeal carcinoma cancer patients treated with intensity modulated proton therapy decreased by more than 50 percent compared to patients treated with intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT).13 Secondary malignancies are also less likely with proton therapy.7

The images on the left are from a study of cancer of the nasopharynx. The study found that proton therapy significantly reduced exposure to the spinal cord, ear canal, thyroid, and other critical organs compared with X-rays in the form of intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT).8

Proton Center

Breakthrough Technology to Administer Proton Therapy

Due to their location, head and neck cancers in particular may benefit from new technology including pencil beam scanning on the gantry and the vertical CT scanner.

Pencil beam scanning uses protons like paint on the tip of a brush. The radiation is dotted onto the target areas, allowing proton therapy to treat tumors of a broad range of shapes, sizes and locations. Pencil beam scanning on the 360-degree gantry allows treatment to be delivered from a range of positions and angles, enabling the care team to treat more complex cases.

The vertical CT scanner is an upright scanning system that allows the care team to take planning images while the patient is in a seated position. This capability allows clinicians to target head and neck tumors more accurately with proton therapy and minimize radiation to healthy tissue and adjacent organs. In addition to more precise treatment, the seated position is intended to provide greater comfort for the patient and decrease tumor motion.

What to Expect with Proton Therapy

Proton therapy is considered safe, non-invasive and painless. Depending on the patient's diagnosis, treatments are usually given five days a week. The typical course of treatment for head and neck cancers is 30-35 treatments over the course of six to seven weeks. .

Patients continue with normal activities before and after treatment. Some patients choose to work; others go on a “radiation vacation” and spend their days doing recreational activities before or after treatment.

Patient Stories

Read what our patients have to say about their proton therapy treatment and how proton therapy and our staff impacted their lives.

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Contact Us

To discover if you or a loved one could benefit from proton therapy, please call us at 877.887.5807 (TTY 711).

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