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What are the benefits of proton therapy for head and neck cancers?

Babita Jyoti, M.D.

December 5, 2017

Proton beam therapy is a highly targeted form of radiation therapy that uses protons instead of photons to target the tumor site. In traditional photon radiation, the X-ray beam travels through the body to the tumor, destroying both the cancerous and healthy tissue in its path. Proton therapy, on the other hand, deposits the majority of its energy directly at the tumor site, reducing damage to surrounding tissue and minimizing side effects for patients. This is of particular importance when treating tumors close to critical structures such as the brain, eyes, and spinal cord, including oral, head and neck cancers.

Treatment for these types of cancers depends on the tumor’s location and stage, as well as the age and overall health of the individual patient. While proton therapy is not right for everyone, it offers many benefits in treating oral, head and neck cancers. These include:

  • Reduced radiation exposure to the important normal structures such as the spinal cord, brainstem, optic nerve, chiasm, temporal lobes, and parotid glands
  • Less risk of needing a feeding tube during oropharyngeal cancer treatment than those undergoing chemotherapy or conventional radiation
  • Reduced risk of mucositis, a painful inflammation of the mucous membranes lining the digestive tract. This leads to reduced need for opioid pain medications
  • Reduced risk of malnutrition caused by swallowing problems related to some head and neck cancer treatments
  • Improved chances of preserving salivary gland function as well as taste

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) recently updated their guidelines to include proton therapy as an appropriate treatment option for oral, head and neck cancers – in particular, those near the obit of the eye and the base of the skull. They acknowledge that proton therapy offers advantages in sparing important organs from radiation exposure, including the brain, brain stem, nerve networks, inner ear, eye, and structures in the mouth and throat. You can learn more about the NCCN guidelines for head and neck cancers here.

If you have questions regarding treatment options for head and neck cancers, please call us at (904) 880-5522 or email me at

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