Understanding Cancer

Head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancers mostly grow inside your mouth, nose, throat or sinuses. Sometimes they start in the saliva glands or lymph nodes.

What to expect before, during, and after radiotherapy treatment:

Explore The Patient Pathway

In recent years there has been an increase in head and neck cancers related to the human papilloma virus (HPV). Smoking, chewing tobacco or betel nut, and heavy drinking can also aggravate these cancers and make treatment more difficult.

In more detail

Most head and neck cancers are known as mucosal, which refers to the mucus membranes where they are most commonly found. These membranes are the soft, moist linings of the hollow areas of your head: your mouth, nose, sinuses, larynx – your voice box, and pharynx – your throat. Each area is open to the surrounding air, and the mucus membranes keep the inner cavity surfaces protected.

The lymph nodes and the salivary glands produce the fluid saliva that keeps the mucus membranes moist. These are also vulnerable to adenocarcinoma, a cancer that begins in glands.

Cancers of the brain, eye and thyroid are not grouped with the mucosal variety, nor are cancers of the scalp, skin, muscles and bones of the head.

Head and neck cancers are highly likely to spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, and also to the lungs. More rarely they spread to other parts of the body, including the liver, bone or brain.

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The Patient Pathway

First Specialist Appointment

At the first specialist appointment you will meet with your specialist radiation oncologist (RO) to discuss the proposed radiotherapy treatment approach and answer any questions and concerns you may have. Click read more to learn more and download information by treatment site e.g. breast, prostate.


At the orientation appointment a patient care specialist (nurse or radiation therapist) will explain the procedures in more detail and answer any concerns that you might have about ARO and your treatment. Click read more to learn more and download information by treatment site e.g. breast, prostate.


Before starting treatment, you will attend a simulation appointment to determine the optimal body position for receiving treatment and provide a detailed picture of the area to be treated.

First Day of Treatment

Please arrive 10-15 minutes before your allocated treatment time so we can greet you and allow you time to get changed for your treatment. Please bring an extra layer of clothing (e.g. cardigan or jacket) should you feel cold while you wait in the treatment reception area. Please report to the ARO reception desk. For free parking please refer to the information below. See location and parking for more information.

During Treatment

Weekly reviews with your radiation oncologist or one of our patient care team will be conducted to monitor any side effects and provide on-going support and advice as required. Click read more to learn more and download information by treatment site e.g. breast, prostate.

Last Week of Treatment

An appointment will be scheduled for you to meet with a member of our patient care team to answer any questions and to ensure appropriate care is organised after your last treatment visit. This may include regular monitoring of blood results, appointments for dressings and management of side effects.

After Treatment

Usually 2-6 weeks after your last treatment visit you will meet with your radiation oncologist or the doctor that referred you to ARO. Your GP will also be sent a report about your treatment and will continue to provide for your general health needs. 

You are welcome to contact our patient care team to answer questions or concerns that you may have about your treatment or possible side effects up to 2 weeks following your last treatment visit.  Please phone our nurses on 09 623 6585, email aronurses@aro.co.nz or make an appointment during business hours. 

Should you require support after 2 weeks, please contact the ARO Specialist Centre on phone 09 623 6587 or email specialistcentre@aro.co.nz. For all other health concerns, please contact your GP, usual healthcare provider or local emergency facility. Click read more to learn more and download information by treatment site e.g. breast, prostate. This includes information on possible side effects and self care advice by treatment site.