Head and Neck Cancer

Program Leadership

Walter Lee, MD, MHS
David Brizel, MD

Program Overview

Cancers of the head and neck account for approximately three percent of all malignancies in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), with overall mortality rates on the decline since 2001. Tobacco use, heavy alcohol use, and infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) increase the risk of many types of head and neck cancer.  

Duke is a high-volume referral center for treatment of cancers of the mouth, salivary and thyroid glands, nasal cavity, paranasal sinuses, pharynx, oropharynx, nasopharynx, larynx, skin of the head and neck, and lymph nodes. Physicians within this program are internationally recognized research and clinical experts who make head and neck cancer care their primary career focus.

Duke Cancer Institute's Head and Neck Cancer Program has developed innovations that are now the standard of care for treatment of head and neck cancer, such as a combination of intensive radiation therapy and simultaneous chemotherapy for advanced-stage head and neck cancer, and operations that result in better function and less disfigurement. Our team of specialists in head and neck oncologic surgery, plastic and reconstructive surgery, radiation oncology, medical oncology, radiology and pathology ensure that each patient receives state-of-the-art treatment—supported by the most advanced technology available anywhere—while maintaining quality of life throughout treatment and recovery. 

We've created a new model for integrated care for the treatment of head and neck cancer embraced by cancer centers across the world. 

Research and Treatment Focus Areas

Individualized Treatment 

Duke investigators are leading the effort to use functional metabloic imaging to better determine progrnosis and to predict the outcome of a planned course of treatment. They are conducting clinical trials that use both a specialized type of MRI scan called dynamic contrast enhanced (DCE) MRI to measure tumor blood flow and blood vessel function and PET scanning to measure tumor glucose metabolism. The scans are performed before and during treatment to determine the effects of therapy on these functions and their relationships to the success of treatment. This information will help to personalize treatment for individuals. 

Improved Surgical Outcomes

Duke head and neck surgeons use transoral robotic surgery for the treatment of select tonsil, tongue, and larynx cancers. This technique allows resection of these cancers without the need for large deforming surgical procedures and with a greater chance of preserving speech, swallowing and breathing functions. 

Noninvasive Analysis of Head and Neck Lesions 

Researchers are investigating a light-based optical probe to rapidly and noninvasively analyze tumor characteristics and identify biomarkers before and during treatment. This probe, developed by Duke University biomedical engineers, may improve the ability to detect cancer and monitor the effectiveness of treatment, thus facilitating more personalized treatment recommendations.

Clinical Trials

A Phase 1a-b Trial of Concurrent Radiation Therapy, Cisplatin, and BMX-001 in Locally Advanced Head and Neck Cancer

This trial is supported by the NCI and designed to determine the role of a drug developed at Duke, BMX-001 in patients undergoing radiotherapy and concurrent chemotherapy for locally advanced head and neck cancer. BMX-001 is a free radical scavenger. Laboratory investigation at Duke has shown that it significantly reduces the severity of mucositis (mouth sores) and xerostomia (dry mouth), the two most common and severe side effects of treatment.Health related quality of life will be evaluated both during and after the completion of treatment. This trial is only available to patients being treated at the Duke Cancer Institute and the University of Colorado.

For more information on this and other trials, see the DCI clinical trials page.

Additional Contacts

Nolan Miller, Administrative Director

Phone: 919.684.1671

Make An Appointment

To make an appointment, please call 888.275.3853. For more information on head and neck cancer care at Duke Health, visit:

To find a doctor, visit Find A Specialist.