What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. Cytotoxic means toxic to cells.

These drugs disrupt the way cancer cells grow and divide, but they also affect normal cells.

When chemotherapy is used for head and neck cancers

Chemotherapy can be given in combination with radiotherapy. This is called chemoradiation. Chemoradiation is usually used to treat locally advanced head and neck cancers.

Sometimes chemotherapy is given before radiotherapy. This is to shrink the tumour and help to make the radiotherapy more effective.

Chemotherapy may also be used on its own. It may be given to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life if it is not possible to cure the cancer. This is called palliative chemotherapy.

Some people have palliative chemotherapy with a targeted therapy drug.

How chemotherapy is given

Chemotherapy drugs are usually given into a vein (intravenously), but some are given as tablets. The drugs travel in the blood, which means they can reach cancer cells that might be elsewhere in the body.

Chemotherapy is usually given as several sessions of treatment, with rest periods in between the sessions. Chemotherapy and the rest period make up a cycle of your treatment. Your cancer doctor will explain the number of cycles you need to treat the cancer. This is your course of treatment.

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:

Chemotherapy drugs commonly used to treat head and neck cancers are:

Possible side effects of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can cause side effects. These depend on the drugs you have. Your cancer doctor, nurse specialist or pharmacist will explain the side effect your chemotherapy is likely to cause.

For example, the drug cisplatin may affect your hearing. They will ask you let them know about any changes to your hearing or other side effects.

We have more information about the side effects of chemotherapy.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.