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.
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You will usually receive chemotherapy by injection into a vein (intravenously), although it is occasionally given as tablets. How often you have chemotherapy sessions will depend on the treatment plan.
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 symptoms such as pain.
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.
Your medical oncologist or nurse will discuss the likely side effects with you, including how these 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 or constipation
- hair loss
- low red blood cell count (anaemia)
- hearing loss
- ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- lower levels of white blood cells, which may increase the risk of infection
- 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 go to the hospital emergency department.
For more on this, see Chemotherapy.
Video: What is chemotherapy?
Watch this short video to learn more about chemotherapy.
Podcast: Making Treatment Decisions
A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
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