Chemotherapy for head and neck cancers

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. The aim is to destroy cancer cells while causing the least possible damage to healthy cells. You will probably receive chemotherapy by injection into a vein (intravenously) at treatment sessions over several weeks.

Chemotherapy may be given for a range of reasons:

  • in combination with radiation therapy (chemoradiation), to increase the effects of radiation
  • before surgery or radiation therapy (neoadjuvant chemotherapy), to shrink a tumour
  • after surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy), along with radiation therapy, to reduce the risk of the cancer returning
  • as palliative treatment to relieve pain and improve quality of life.

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Side effects of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can affect the healthy cells in the body and cause side effects. Everyone reacts differently to chemotherapy, and effects will vary according to the drugs you are given. Some people may have few side effects, while others have many. Often, chemoradiation causes more severe side effects than if you have chemotherapy and radiation therapy separately. Your medical oncologist or nurse will discuss the likely side effects with you, including how they can be prevented or controlled with medicine.

Common side effects include tiredness and fatigue; nausea and/or vomiting; tingling or numbness in fingers and/or toes (peripheral neuropathy); changes in appetite and loss of taste; diarrhoea; hair loss; low red blood cell count (anaemia); hearing loss; ringing in the ears (tinnitus); a drop in levels of white blood cells, which may increase the risk of infection; and mouth sores.

Keep a record of the names and doses of your chemotherapy drugs handy. This will save time if you become ill and need to visit the hospital emergency department.

For more on this, see Chemotherapy.

Video: What is chemotherapy?

Watch this short video to learn more about chemotherapy.

This information was last reviewed in September 2019
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