Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy can play a vital role in the treatment of head and neck cancers. It may be given in combination with chemotherapy to treat later-stage cancers, or it can be used alone.

Radiation beams are made up of tiny particles of energy. They break down the DNA of tumor cells and cause them to die off. Because radiation beams are so powerful, the Washington University radiation oncologists at Siteman Cancer Center use sophisticated techniques to keep them away from healthy tissues as much as possible.

A number of clinical trials at Siteman are examining how to optimize radiation therapy for head and neck cancer patients.

Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)

IMRT is an advanced form of external beam radiation therapy that allows radiation specialists to conform, or map, radiation doses to the exact three-dimensional shape of a tumor. In IMRT, radiation specialists can vary the amount of radiation in each beam targeted at the tumor. They also can turn the radiation on and off during treatments. The precise control and flexibility of IMRT minimizes the amount of radiation passing into surrounding tissues.

Sometimes, depending on the location of the tumor, IMRT will be paired with MRI or other forms of imaging for an additional level of oversight. This technique is called image-guided intensity-modulated radiation therapy, or IG-IMRT.

Read more about IMRT at Siteman.

Proton beam therapy

Proton beam therapy is a type of radiation therapy that uses a narrow stream of protons, a positively-charged particle, to attack tumor cells. The advantage of proton beam therapy is that radiation specialists can control the depth and shape of each beam. This means that the radiation dose can be better confined to the tumor, instead of passing unchecked through the body.

The S. Lee Kling Proton Therapy Center at Siteman Cancer was the first in St. Louis. We have more experience than anyone else in the region at delivering this type of treatment.

Learn more about proton therapy at Siteman.

Stereotactic body radiation therapy

Patients whose cancer has returned or metastasized may receive stereotactic body radiation therapy, or SBRT. This form of radiation therapy uses many beams of radiation to target the tumor from multiple angles. The beams converge at the tumor site, delivering a powerful dose of radiation to the tumor while limiting damage to surrounding tissues and allowing for re-irradiation to previously treated sites.

SBRT is very effective at controlling tumor growth, bringing patients an improved quality of life and prolonging the time between successive treatments.