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Head & Neck Cancers Program

Head and Neck Cancers Program

The Head and Neck Cancers Program at Smilow Cancer Hospital provides dedicated care, as well as innovative and organ-sparing treatment options to patients with cancers of the head and neck. By carefully balancing treatment efficacy with quality-of-life, our collaborative approach to care personalizes treatment for tumors affecting the neck, larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), oral cavity (mouth), ear, sinuses, tonsils, and salivary glands, as well as cervical (neck) lymph nodes or neck structures.

Given the effects that cancers of the head and neck region and their treatment can have on swallowing and speech, as well as appearance, a team approach is critical to attaining the best possible outcome for patients. Our experienced, multidisciplinary team of health care professionals includes head and neck surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, nutritionists, a smoking cessation specialist, dentists, a physical/lymphedema therapist, advanced practice nurses, and social workers.  

Our Approach

Our program offers a promising new surgical technique, transoral robotic surgery (TORS), that can be used to remove certain throat cancers while avoiding skin and bone incisions. This approach speeds healing and shortens a patient’s hospital stay. Likewise, patients with certain laryngeal cancers, who a few years ago would have lost their vocal cords and their voices, can often be treated with less invasive surgeries.

Patients who undergo these treatments maintain their ability to speak, although they may need to alter their diet or learn new swallowing techniques. At Yale, rehabilitative specialists work with patients to help them adjust to and overcome some of these swallowing impairments.

In many cases, radical neck dissections have been replaced by less radical surgeries that preserve the nerves, arteries, and muscles in the neck. Patients continue to move, speak, breathe, and eat normally after less radical surgeries, without sacrificing cure rates.  Additionally, in recent years, the field of reconstructive surgery has achieved many breakthroughs, yielding previously unattainable cosmetic and functional outcomes.

Medical Oncology

The integration of chemotherapy with radiation has become an effective treatment for patients with head and neck cancer that involves the lymph nodes or that is locally extensive. This approach can lead to organ preservation and increase the chance of cure for many patients. Breakthroughs in targeted therapy and biomarkers allow for personalized treatment plans that can avoid the toxicities of conventional chemotherapy in some cases. For patients with recurrent disease, new anti-cancer drugs and immunotherapies are also available.

The medical oncology team at Smilow Cancer Hospital continues to study innovative new treatments, and our patients have the opportunity to receive novel therapies through clinical trials only available at Yale.

Radiation Oncology

Radiation therapy is critical for almost all advanced head and neck cancers. It can be delivered alone, or in combination with chemotherapy as a primary therapy or an after surgical therapy. New radiation techniques, such as intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) effectively targets tumors while simultaneously minimizing damage to surrounding normal tissues, a critical concern for head and neck tumor patients.