- What is head and neck cancer?  
- How does cancer arise?
- What causes head and neck cancer?  
- Can cancer of the head and neck be cured?  
- Symptoms of head and neck cancer  
- Referral to a specialist
- Diagnosis of head and neck cancer  
- Stage and grade of cancer  
- Treatment for head and neck cancer  
- Follow-up after treatment  
- Clinical trials

Side effects

Side effects usually occur toward the end of your course of radiotherapy and during the first couple of weeks after treatment has finished. How troublesome side effects are depends on how much radiotherapy is given.

Your doctor will tell you about the side effects that you might expect with your radiotherapy treatment and can prescribe medications to help you.

Radiotherapy makes you tired, so try to get as much rest as you can, especially if you have to travel to the treatment centre. You may feel slightly sick, but this can usually be effectively treated using anti-sickness drugs.

Soreness of the skin

The skin in the treatment area may become red and sore, like sunburn. Sometimes, the skin may peel or crack. At the beginning of your radiotherapy, advice will be given on how to look after the skin in the area being treated, including creams or lotions to help with soreness.

Hair loss

Hair loss only occurs where the radiotherapy beam enters and leaves the body. Hair may grow back a few weeks after treatment finishes, but hair loss may sometimes be permanent in the affected area. For example, men being treated for cancer of the larynx will lose their beard hair in the throat area.

Eye irritation

This includes conjunctivitis and dry eyes for which treatment is available.

Sore throat

Radiotherapy may make the lining of the mouth, throat or nose sore and inflamed. In the throat, this may make it difficult to swallow. Your doctor can prescribe painkillers and mouthwashes to ease this and you will be given advice on foods that are easy to swallow. If your throat becomes too sore to eat or drink easily, you may be given a liquid diet through a thin tube called a nasogastric tube that is passed up your nose and down into your stomach.

Dry mouth or throat

If radiotherapy is being given to the upper part of your neck, this may affect the salivary glands so that they produce less, or no, saliva, which can cause a dry mouth. The dryness can be relieved by using aids such as KY jelly or olive oil, artificial saliva, medicated pastilles or some medicines. A dietician can advise you on moist foods that are easy to eat. Usually, the salivary glands will recover, but for some people the reduction in saliva is permanent.

Your throat may also feel dry, and it may feel as though there is sticky mucus in your throat. Both feelings may continue after the end of treatment but should eventually disappear.

If you do have a dry mouth, it is important to see a dentist regularly as tooth decay and gum disease are more likely when your mouth is dry. If it is necessary to have a tooth removed after radiotherapy to the mouth area, this should be done by a hospital specialist, not your usual dentist.

Loss of voice

In cancer of the larynx, your voice may already be hoarse before you start treatment, and is likely to become more hoarse (or even to disappear) during radiotherapy. Your voice will gradually improve and get stronger over the following weeks and months. You may be given voice exercises by a speech therapist to help speed up the recovery.

Loss of appetite, taste and smell

Some people lose their appetite during and after radiotherapy. Your doctor or nurse can prescribe nutritious, high-calorie drinks to supplement or replace your meals until your appetite returns.

Smell and taste may become dull or change during treatment and for a few months afterwards. Your taste and smell should return to normal after treatment, but may not return in everyone. Your speech therapist will be able to teach you helpful techniques.