Chemotherapy for head and neck cancer

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.

Having chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can be given in combination with radiotherapy and sometimes before radiotherapy or on its own. Chemotherapy is usually given in combination with radiotherapy to treat locally advanced head and neck cancers. This is called chemoradiation.

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

Chemotherapy may also be used to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life if it is 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 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:

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.