Proton Therapy for Head and Neck Cancers

Targeting Cancers of the Head and Neck

Your head and neck are home to some of your body’s most intricate and sensitive organs and tissues, and tumors in these areas must be treated with expert precision and the utmost care. These tumors typically require a high dose of radiation, but because they are tucked away among vital, highly sensitive structures—such as the brain, optic nerve, thyroid, salivary glands and jawbone—targeting them can be especially challenging, but extremely important because:

  • Radiation to healthy tissues around cancer tumors in the head or neck can affect your sight, hearing, taste, swallowing, ability to eat, appearance and even brain function—possibly permanently.
  • These tumors are located next to vital structures, unchecked tumor growth can lead to devastating disabilities and death.
  • If cancer comes back after radiation therapy, a second round of treatment with X-ray radiation may be too risky.

Head & Neck Cancers Treated

Learn more about the benefits of proton therapy for head and neck cancers including:

  • Base of skull cancers
  • Throat cancers
  • Larynx cancer (voice box)
  • Oral(mouth) cancers and lip cancer
  • Salivary gland cancer
  • Sinus cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Tongue cancer
  • Tonsil cancer

About Proton Therapy


Proton Therapy Expertise

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The clinical and scientific teams have more than 90 years of combined experience treating patients with proton therapy. Learn more about the experts at the center.

Why Choose Scripps

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From diagnosis and treatment to navigation and support, Scripps offers comprehensive cancer care. Learn how proton therapy further complements these services.

The benefits of proton therapy for head and neck cancers

With any radiation techniques used for this type of cancer, the potential for serious complications including blindness and brain stem injury can be high. This can lead to a difficult choice between giving:

  1. a less-than-optimal dose to the tumor (which reduces the chance of a cure); or
  2. an ideal dose to the tumor with a higher risk of radiation to healthy tissues.

Proton therapy is an extremely precise form of radiation treatment that enables us to target cancerous cells within the intricate areas of the head and neck. Because protons deposit their maximum energy directly in the tumor, exposure to your fragile healthy tissues is greatly reduced.

  • Advanced proton therapy allows doctors to more selectively place high-dose radiation on your tumor, while simultaneously reducing the dose to your surrounding critical organs. This has been shown to deliver higher cure rates than X-ray radiation treatment even with some of the most difficult tumor types.
  • Many studies have shown an increased rate of secondary cancer in surrounding areas in patients who receive X-ray radiation therapy. Because proton therapy lowers the dose to normal tissue, studies predict a lower risk of secondary cancer with this treatment.
  • Scripps Proton Therapy Center’s precisely targeted pencil-beam scanning technique further reduces the amount of radiation to surrounding tissues, even when compared with conventional passively scattered protons. The radiation dose from pencil-beam scanning that extends beyond the target has been shown to be can be substantially less than passively scattered protons and intensity-modulated X-ray therapy (IMRT).
  • Because proton therapy can better concentrate its radiation dose to the target and limit it elsewhere, it is ideally suited for treating recurrent tumors in areas that have previously been treated with radiation therapy. Treating previously radiated areas is challenging and very risky with any radiation therapy. Tissues around the recurrent tumor don’t “forget” the previous radiation dose, and any added dose continues to increase the risk of normal tissue injury. By reducing the radiation dose given to these previously treated tissues, protons can help to reduce, but not eliminate, some of the risks associated with re-irradiation.

See the evidence supporting proton therapy as a treatment option for head and neck cancers.

Support services

Cancer treatment can be a difficult time for both patients and their families. Understanding this, Scripps offers a wide variety of care to ease the burden. Learn more about the support services available.

What to expect

Each patient’s therapy is precisely tailored to his or her needs. Patients and clinicians collaborate closely to create a personalized treatment plan. The number and length of treatments will vary, based on the cancer. How patients respond depends on many factors, including the types of treatments they are receiving. Many people tolerate proton therapy well and continue to perform normal activities. However, individual responses will vary. Learn more about what to expect during treatment.

Proton therapy is a highly precise form of external radiation therapy that can be used for tumor control in select patients. All cancer treatments have advantages and disadvantages. Be sure to discuss these, as well as your treatment options, with your cancer specialist.

Proton Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer Research