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Radiation Therapy for Tongue Cancer Treatment and Oropharyngeal Cancer

Tongue cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the tongue’s cells. The tongue can be affected by a variety of cancers, but tongue cancer most commonly begins in the thin, flat squamous cells that line the surface. The type of cells involved in your tongue cancer influences your prognosis and treatment options. 

Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in oropharyngeal tissues. Smoking and being infected with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) can both increase your risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer. The symptoms include a lump in the neck and a sore throat. 

The oropharynx is the middle part of the throat behind the mouth. It is about 5 inches long that starts from behind the mouth and ends where the trachea begins. The oropharynx includes the soft palate, side, and back walls of the throat, tonsils, and the back part of the tongue.

Treatment Options

Let us look at some of the common treatment methods for oropharyngeal cancer before understanding the radiation therapy process for tongue and oropharyngeal cancer. Some of the common treatment methods are:

    • Surgery: Oropharyngeal cancer surgery is a common treatment for all stages of the disease. A surgeon may remove cancer as well as some of the healthy tissue surrounding it. After the surgeon removes all visible cancer during the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.
  • Radiation Therapy: Radiation therapy is a tongue cancer treatment that employs high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to either kill or prevent cancer cells from growing. External radiation therapy uses a machine located outside the body to direct radiation toward the cancerous area.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that employs drugs that halt the growth of cancer cells, either by killing them or preventing them from dividing. Chemotherapy drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body when taken orally or injected directly into a vein or muscle.

Radiation Therapy in Oropharyngeal Cancer

Now, let us understand how radiation therapy for cancer is useful in treating tongue and oropharyngeal cancers:

Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT): IMRT is a type of 3-dimensional (3-D) radiation therapist employs a computer to create images of the tumor’s size and shape. Radiation beams of varying intensities (strengths) are aimed at the tumor from a variety of angles.

Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy (SBRT): This is a type of external radiation therapy. For each radiation treatment, special equipment is used to position the patient in the same position. A radiation machine directs a higher-than-usual dose of radiation at the tumor once a day for several days. There is less damage to the nearby healthy tissues when the patient is in the same position for each treatment.

Hyperfractionated Radiation Therapy: Dividing the daily dose of radiation into smaller-dose treatments improves the tumor’s response to treatment in advanced oropharyngeal cancer. This is referred to as hyperfractionated radiation therapy. Radiation therapy may be more effective in patients who have quit smoking prior to starting treatment.


If the thyroid or pituitary glands are exposed to radiation, the patient is likely to develop hypothyroidism (too little thyroid hormone). A blood test to determine the level of thyroid hormone in the body should be performed before and after treatment.

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