HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer can be treated with different types of therapy. Treatment options generally depend on how far the disease has progressed, the specific location and extent of disease, the patient’s health, availability of clinical expertise and equipment, and patient or physician preference.
The two main treatments are surgery and radiation therapy. Surgery can be done in different ways. The majority of these tumors can be removed successfully using surgical instruments through the mouth, including robotic and laser systems. Open surgery, known as a neck dissection, is also typically used to reach the lymph nodes in the neck because cancer cells often spread to these neck lymph nodes. Both sides of the neck often need to be treated.
Radiation therapy can be used as an alternative initial treatment, or as an additional treatment following surgery. Radiation therapy typically involves several weeks of treatment. If given as a primary treatment, it’s possible you may also need surgery later.
There are functional considerations as well as short- and long-term complications associated with both surgery and radiation. Chemotherapy can be used to make tumor cells more sensitive to radiation therapy, called a radiosensitizer, for advanced stages of the disease. This is generally only done when surgery or radiation therapy cannot be given or in a palliative setting, and is not considered to be curative therapy when given by itself.