Chemotherapy for head and neck cancer

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy or damage cancer cells.

Chemotherapy is usually given in combination with radiotherapy to treat locally advanced head and neck cancers. This is calledchemoradiation.

Sometimes chemotherapy is given before radiotherapy to shrink the tumour and help to make the radiotherapy more effective. Very rarely, chemotherapy is given before surgery to shrink the tumour and make it easier to remove.

Sometimes chemotherapy is given to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life if it’s not possible to cure the cancer. This is called palliative chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy drugs are usually given into a vein (intravenously), but some are given as tablets. The drugs circulate in the bloodstream and reach cancer cells all over the body.

Sometimes, intravenous chemotherapy is given continuously over a few days. The chemotherapy can sometimes be given through a small, portable pump. This allows you to go home during your treatment. The pump is attached to a thin tube that is inserted into a vein in the crook of your arm (PICC line) or your chest (central line).

Chemotherapy drugs that are commonly used to treat head and neck cancer are:

Back to Chemotherapy explained

When is chemotherapy used?

Chemotherapy is used to kill cancer cells in the body. Your doctor will explain if chemotherapy is advised for you.

How do chemotherapy drugs work?

Chemotherapy drugs work by stopping cancer cells reproducing. The drugs can also affect healthy cells, causing side effects.