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This occurs as a consequence of radiation damage to the salivary glands. According to a new study, changing the intensity of radiotherapy to protect the salivary glands could help treat a rare type of head and neck cancer and avoid this side effect.

Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London, found that in 36 patients with head and neck cancer of unknown origin, a radiotherapy technique called intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) was as effective as conventional radiotherapy at preventing the return of the disease.1

IMRT focuses the radiation more directly on the cancer being treated and can reduce high doses of radiation to the salivary glands, which could reduce side-effects that cause patient to be left with a permanent dry mouth.

Scientists at the ICR and Royal treated 36 patients with head and neck cancer of unknown origin using IMRT to reduce radiation delivered to the salivary glands. They observed that avoiding giving a high dose of radiotherapy to the salivary glands helped prevent side-effects after treatment which impact on patients’ quality of life.

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Two years after radiotherapy, 90% of patients were disease free and on average four years after treatment the technique showed good control of their disease compared with similar published studies.

It appears that using IMRT to spare salivary glands may be an effective strategy for treating patients with head and neck cancers; patients preparing to undergo treatment of a cancer of the head and neck should consider being seen at a cancer center with IMRT and discuss whether there are potential benefits for their situation.


  1. Richards TM, Bhide SA, Rosario LD, et al. Total Mucosal Irradiation with Intensity-modulated Radiotherapy in Patients with Head and Neck Carcinoma of Unknown Primary: A Pooled Analysis of Two Prospective Studies. Clinical Oncology (2016), j.clon.2016.04.035.