Chemotherapy for oesophageal cancer
Chemotherapy uses 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. Chemotherapy for oesophageal cancer may be given alone or it may be combined with radiation therapy (see Chemoradiation for oesophageal cancer).
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When is chemotherapy used?
For oesophageal cancer, chemotherapy may be used:
- before surgery (neoadjuvant chemotherapy) – to shrink a large tumour and destroy any cancer cells that may have spread
- after surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy) – to reduce the chance of the disease coming back
- on its own (palliative treatment) – for people unable to have surgery or where cancer has spread to different parts of the body.
Chemotherapy is usually given by injecting the drugs into a vein in the arm. It may also be given through a tube that is implanted and stays in your vein throughout treatment (called a port-a-cath or PICC line), or as tablets you swallow. You will usually receive treatment as an outpatient.
Most people have a combination of chemotherapy drugs over several treatment sessions. For each session, the drugs may be given on one day, or continuously over several days using a small pump that is attached to the implanted tube. There may be a rest period of a few weeks between each treatment session.
For more on this, see our general section on Chemotherapy.
How you react to chemotherapy will vary, depending on the drugs you receive, how often you have treatment, and your general fitness and health. Some people have few side effects, while others have many. Most side effects are temporary, but some may last longer or be ongoing.
Your treatment team can help you prevent or manage any side effects. Common side effects may include nausea and/or vomiting, sore mouth or mouth ulcers, appetite changes and difficulty swallowing, skin and nail changes, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, ringing in the ears or hearing loss, changed bowel habits (e.g. constipation, diarrhoea), and hair loss or thinning. You may also be more likely to catch infections. If you feel unwell or have a temperature of 38°C or higher, seek urgent medical attention.
Video: What is chemotherapy?
Watch this short video to learn more about chemotherapy.
Podcast: Making Treatment Decisions
Dr Spiro Raftopoulos, Gastroenterologist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Peter Blyth, Consumer; Jeff Bull, Upper Gastrointestinal Cancer Nurse Consultant, Cancer Services, Southern Adelaide Local Health Network, SA; Mick Daws, Consumer; Dr Steven Leibman, Upper Gastrointestinal Surgeon, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Prof Michael Michael, Medical Oncologist, Lower and Upper Gastrointestinal Oncology Service, and Co-Chair Neuroendocrine Unit, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Andrew Oar, Radiation Oncologist, Icon Cancer Centre, Royal Brisbane Hospital, QLD; Rose Rocca, Senior Clinical Dietitian: Upper Gastrointestinal, Nutrition and Speech Pathology Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Letchemi Valautha, Consumer; Lesley Woods, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA.
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