Surgery for Head and Neck Cancer

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Cancer surgery is often the first treatment a doctor chooses to treat head and neck cancer. Sometimes, surgery can remove the entire tumor, eliminating the need for additional treatment. For more advanced cancers, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be necessary after surgery. In the hands of a skilled ENT (ear, nose and throat) doctor or cancer surgeon, surgery can have excellent outcomes with little or no side effects.

Types of Surgery for Head and Neck Cancer

The type of surgery you need to remove a cancerous tumor of the head or neck depends on where the cancer is and how advanced it is—or its stage. Throat cancer surgery, for example, could require removal of the larynx—or voice box—if that’s where the tumor is located.

In general, the most common types of surgical procedures for head and neck cancers include:

  • Tumor removal or resection often involves traditional surgical methods. Doctors might remove the tumor by entering through the mouth or nasal cavity. Another option is to open the skin from the outside to expose the site of the cancer.

  • Laser surgery uses an endoscope or small tube. It can destroy cancer cells located on or near the vocal cords.

  • Micrographic surgery or Mohs surgery removes extremely thin slices of tissue layer by layer. The doctor examines these slices immediately under a microscope for evidence of cancer cells. The procedure continues until no more cancer cells are present in the tissue. This type of surgery is mainly appropriate for cancers of the lip. It is not an option for tumors located inside the mouth, sinuses or throat.

  • Robot-assisted surgery uses the help of a robotic tool. It is typically an option for throat cancer. This type of surgery can increase precision and minimize damage to adjacent healthy tissues like the vocal cords.

  • Neck dissection involves making external incisions in the neck to remove suspicious lymph nodes. Doctors often perform it at the same time as surgery to remove a tumor from the mouth, throat, or nasal passages.

  • Reconstructive surgery can correct disfigurements from surgery performed to remove head and neck cancers.

Types of Doctors who Perform Head and Neck Cancer Surgery

If you have a head or neck cancer diagnosis, your doctor may refer you to a specialist. This might be an ENT doctor, an oral maxillofacial surgeon, an oncology (cancer) surgeon, or a plastic surgeon. The first three specialists are skilled in removing cancerous tumors from the head and neck. They may also have specialized training in micrographic, robot-assisted, or endoscopic surgery. A plastic surgeon performs reconstructive procedures. These specialists can help restore tissue defects and correct scarring and other deformities resulting from your cancer surgery.

When a cancerous tumor is caught early, doctors can often completely remove it with surgery. Sometimes you may not even need any follow-up treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Your doctor will discuss all the risks and benefits of surgery for head and neck cancer so you can make an informed decision about how to proceed.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Mar 22
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  5. Surgery for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer. American Cancer Society.