Chemotherapy for head and neck cancer

Chemotherapy for head and neck cancer 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 (chemoradiotherapy), 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.

Often, combined chemoradiotherapy causes more severe side effects than if you have chemotherapy and radiation therapy separately, but the side effects can be managed.

Common side effects include:

  • tiredness and fatigue
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • tingling 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
  • a drop in levels of white blood cells, which may increase the risk of infection
  • mouth sores.

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

To find out more, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for a free copy of Understanding Chemotherapy, or download a digital version from this page.

Video: What is chemotherapy?

Watch this short video to learn more about chemotherapy.

This information was last reviewed in May 2017
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