Chemotherapy may be given before surgery for esophageal cancer to shrink the tumor (neoadjuvant therapy) or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells (adjuvant therapy). It may also help control cancer in people who don’t have surgery.

Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing them outright or stopping them from dividing. Usually the drugs are given by infusion into a vein, where they enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. Some chemotherapy is given in pill form.

Receiving Chemotherapy

A combination of chemotherapy drugs may be used to treat esophageal cancer. Commonly used drugs include:

  • Carboplatin (Paraplat, Paraplatin)
  • Capecitibine (Xeloda)
  • Cisplatin (Platinol)
  • Docetaxel (Taxotere)
  • Epirubicin (Ellence)
  • Fluorouracil (5-FU)
  • Irinotecan (Camptosar)
  • Oxaliplatin (Eloxatin)
  • Paclitaxel (Taxol)

Chemotherapy for Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) patients who need infusions takes place in the Infusion Suite on the fifth floor of the SCCA clinic.

Targeted Therapy

Trastuzumab (Herceptin) is a type of monoclonal antibody therapy. Monoclonal antibody therapy uses antibodies to identify substances on cancer cells that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to these substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading.

Herceptin preferentially attacks cancer cells that make too much of the HER2/neu protein. If you have adenocarcinoma that tests positive for HER2/neu, you would be a candidate for trastuzumab.


You may have chemotherapy alone or in combination with radiation therapy (called chemoradiation). Chemotherapy drugs can make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation. Drugs commonly given with radiation include either capecitabine (a pill taken daily) or a combination of carboplatin and paclitaxel (IV drugs given weekly).

Side Effects

Although chemotherapy may help cure your cancer or extend your life, some chemotherapy drugs may also cause side effects, such as fatigue, nausea, and loss of appetite. Fortunately, there are many excellent supportive medications to help manage these side effects. Not all chemotherapies cause hair loss. Many patients are able to continue work and their normal routine despite receiving chemotherapy.

Your team at SCCA will talk with you about the specific side effects you might experience and will help you prevent, reduce, or manage these effects as best as possible. You can find general information in the symptom management section.