World Head and Neck Cancer Day

27th July 2018  

Cancers of the head and neck

Head and neck cancer often starts in the mucus surfaces inside the mouth, nose and throat. A few head and neck cancers also start in the salivary glands. The risk factors for most head and neck cancers include tobacco, alcohol and infection with HPV (human papillomavirus). The first symptoms of these cancer are often a sore that will not heal, a persistent sore throat, difficulty in swallowing, lumps that do not go away or a change to the voice. As these symptoms can all also be caused by other illnesses, it is important to visit a doctor as soon as they appear.

Dentists are also trained to spot some of the initial signs of head and neck cancers and regular dental check-ups are recommended. In the UK there are approximately 10,000 new cases of head and neck cancer diagnosed each year but 91% to 93% of these are preventable. There is a big variation in survival rates for head and neck cancers with between 19% and 59% of patients surviving for 10 or more years (2009-2013).

head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer treatments

Treatment plans for head and neck cancers vary from patient to patient with factors such as tumour location, cancer stage, patient health and patient age all having an impact. A combination of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, surgery and radiation therapy (radiotherapy) is often used. Radiotherapy is an effective treatment against cancer cells but it does have some side effects, which include, damage to mucus cells at the back of the mouth, in the gastrointestinal tract and in the bone marrow. Head and neck cancer patients who receive radiotherapy treatment, including combined treatments, are also likely to experience a skin reaction such as the burns associated with radiodermatitis.


Radiotherapy treatment is very effective at destroying cancer cells but it can also sometimes damage normal cells in the vicinity of the cancer, for example, skin cells. Radiotherapy treats tumours through the use of ionising rays i.e. x-rays, gamma rays and particulate radiation beams, which disrupt the molecular structure of the cancer and sometimes surrounding tissues. Damage to these normal cells is not usually permanent but the on-going symptoms, particularly the burns related to radiodermatitis, can be unpleasant and may have a significant impact on recovery.

head and neck cancer symptoms


Radiodermatitis affects more than half of all cancer patients who undergo radiotherapy treatment. It can occur at any time during or after treatment and is a type of burn injury. The radiation damage incurred during radiotherapy treatment has a particular effect on the skin because the skin is continuously renewing itself. The level of burns experienced varies from patient to patient, as does recovery time. Acute radiodermatitis occurs around the time of radiotherapy treatment but chronic radiodermatitis can present symptoms for up to 10 years later.

Head and neck cancer patients

Radiodermatitis is a very common complication of radiotherapy treatment but is particularly likely to occur in head and neck cancer patients. Of patients who receive radiotherapy-combined treatments, 95% will be expected to exhibit skin reaction symptoms brought on by the radiotherapy element of their treatment.

Patient morbidity

Studies show that cancer patients who experience radiodermatitis symptoms are more likely to experience ongoing health issues following treatment than those who do not. Another risky health issue for those who develop radiodermatitis is that it may cause interruption in treatment and a reduction in the ability to monitor their tumour.

radiotherapy treatment

R1 and R2 successful treatment for radiodermatitis

A recent study at La Paz University Hospital, Department of Radiotherapy Oncology in Spain set out to assess the response rate of radiation-induced dermatitis to R1 and R2 Waterjel treatment. During and for two weeks after the end of treatment R1 (cooling gel) was used once a day within 2 hours of radiotherapy and R2 (moisturising lotion) was applied four times a day. These treatment regimes did not entirely eliminate the burns symptoms associated with radiodermatitis but they did significantly reduce them with only 21.6% of patients who had received R1 and R2 treatment presenting toxicity at their second follow-up visit as opposed to 83% in the control group who did not receive R1 and R2 treatment. Conclusions strongly suggest that applying R1 and R2 may delay, reduce or eliminate unpleasant burns symptoms.

Relief in radiation treatment

Water-Jel’s R1 and R2 gels soothe, cool, hydrate and relieve the pain of the uncomfortable skin symptoms that are experienced by many who receive life saving radiotherapy treatment. They take a two-step approach; with the R1 cooling burns and the R2 moisturising damaged skin. Water-Jel are world leaders in thermal burn treatments and have used these expertise to create this effective response to the significant problem of unpleasant radiotherapy side effects.