The Head and Neck Cancer Program offers patients extensive medical oncology options to fight cancer using various targeted medications and chemotherapeutic drugs. Care is provided through a well-coordinated, multidisciplinary approach designed to offer the best outcomes for patients. Because head, neck and skull base cancers are our specialty, we offer patients the highest standard of care possible.
Depending on patient needs, a single drug or combination of drugs may be prescribed, sometimes in combination with radiation and/or surgical approaches. Drug options may include hormone therapy, immunotherapy, chemotherapy and targeted agents. Most patients receive chemotherapy and other IV infused treatments in our Day Hospital. This area is staffed with nurses who are experts in administering medical therapy and caring for cancer patients. Many of them have earned national certification in oncology nursing.
For many years, drug treatment for cancer focused on the location of the tumor and getting chemotherapy drugs to the tumor site where they could try to stop the growth and division of cancer cells. While chemotherapy is still a viable treatment approach, medical treatment for cancer today largely focuses on targeted agents – drugs that zero in on specific characteristics of the cancer cells by type, not location. These characteristics may include specific genes, proteins or the tissue environment that contributes to cancer growth and survival. Some targeted agents work inside the cells, some outside, but most are designed to halt the biological signals that tell cancer cells to divide. They may be given intravenously (by IV), orally or by injection.
Clinical Trials and Research Consortiums
New, more effective or advanced targeted agents and chemotherapy drugs are being discovered regularly. To help bring patients the latest options in cancer-fighting drugs, Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin are members of several research consortiums, with unparalleled access to clinical trials, especially when it comes to head, neck and skull base cancers. Learn more about head and neck cancer clinical trials.
Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy for Head and Neck Cancer - Video FAQ
Stuart Wong, MD, medical oncologist, describes immunotherapy and other cellular therapies that offer hope for patients along with fewer side effects and better outcomes.
Immunotherapy is probably one of the most exciting parts of the care that we provide to patients. It is now integrated in many components of the therapy that we can provide for patients. Immunotherapy means that we release the brakes on the immune system, so that the immune system is allowed to identify cancers that should not be there and to get rid of them. We have found that these new immunotherapies in many respects can be more powerful than the old drugs that we used — that are essentially poisons.
We're sometimes getting the best of both worlds. We have patients that have less side effects and, in fact, better outcomes. Immunotherapy is now the part of therapy we are most excited about and offers our patients the greatest amount of hope.
Cellular therapy is a new, experimental type of therapy that involves taking immune cells out of the body expanding them and delivering them back to patients. Another form of this therapy is a type of vaccine therapy where we take components of the virus and deliver it back to the patient to stimulate an immune response. We have some very special studies here that are only open at a few other institutions, but certainly this is a type of therapy that we're going to see more and more of, and that we think offers great hope to patients in the future.
Stuart Wong, MD, medical oncologist, describes side effects from head and neck cancer treatment.
Therapy side effects from head and neck cancer vary quite a bit. Our traditional chemotherapy drugs cause a number of side effects that are undesirable, but part of the territory. Some of the side effects that commonly occur are nausea and vomiting. Although we have really good medicines to combat that, it still occurs.
Other side effects that are very common are fatigue and just the lack of oomph to do things that are normal in our lives. Patients may be more susceptible for infections or bleeding or needing transfusions, however, some of our new therapies have none of those side effects.
The immunotherapy drugs, for instance, only cause severe side effects in about 10 to 15% of our patients. They do not have any of the side effects I just listed, so nausea and vomiting are not common. Low blood counts is not a common side effect. The fatigue issues may be minor, but not anywhere near the sort of severity that we see with our traditional chemotherapy drugs.
Virtual Visits Are Available
Safe and convenient virtual visits by video let you get the care you need via a mobile device, tablet or computer wherever you are. We’ll gather your medical records for you and get our experts’ input so we can offer treatment options without an in-person visit. To schedule a virtual visit, call 1-866-680-0505.
Cancer and the COVID-19 Vaccine
There is currently no data that suggests current or former cancer patients should avoid getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Cancer can weaken your immune system, so we recommend that most patients get the vaccine as soon as possible.