Head & Neck Cancers Chemotherapy

Patients whose cancer has spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes (metastatic cancer) are treated with anti-cancer drugs, called chemotherapy. Chemotherapy in combination with radiation therapy is the standard of care either as the main treatment or after surgery. If you need chemotherapy, you may have the option of receiving the standard drugs for your disease or participating in a clinical study that explores an innovative approach. Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) researchers are studying new combinations of chemotherapy drugs to find the most effective combinations.

What to Expect If You Need Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is systemic; the drugs enter your bloodstream and go throughout your body. Chemotherapy can help kill cancer cells that are in or near your tumor as well as those that may have spread to other areas. It works by killing fast-growing cells. But the drugs cannot discriminate between cancer cells and other fast-growing cells, which is why chemotherapy can lead to side effects like hair loss and mouth sores.

These medicines are usually delivered through an intravenous (IV) line in the hand or arm or through a port that is surgically placed in a vein in your chest. Some may be taken by mouth in pill form. If you’re coming in for chemotherapy infusions, you may want to bring a friend or family member to sit with you during treatment, which sometimes takes several hours.

Chemotherapy for head and neck cancers is given in cycles. You will receive an infusion one week and then have a two- or three-week break before your next infusion. The break between infusions allows the drugs to take effect and gives your body some time to recover before getting more. The number of treatment cycles you have depends on the drugs you need and the stage of your cancer.

Side Effects

Side effects of chemotherapy vary greatly from person to person and depend on the type and dose of the drugs given, the way they are given, and the length of time they are given. Your treatment team can tell you about the side effects that are most common with your drugs.

Let your team know about any side effects that you experience. If you are receiving chemotherapy, your doctor may change your dosage or treatment schedule to prevent side effects from getting worse. For general advice, see the section on coping with side effects.

The time it takes to get over some side effects and regain energy depends on many factors, including your overall health and the drugs you were given.