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Chemoradiotherapy

Find out about having chemotherapy and radiotherapy together for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer and how you have it.

Why you have it

You might have radiotherapy combined with chemotherapy (chemoradiotherapy):

  • if your cancer has spread into surrounding tissues or nearby lymph nodes
  • instead of surgery for small mouth cancers (this is not common) 

Chemotherapy drugs can make cells more sensitive to radiotherapy. This helps radiotherapy to kill cancer cells. Researchers have found that chemoradiation works better than radiotherapy alone for some people with mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. 

How you have it

Your exact treatment plan depends on your situation.

Your radiotherapy might last for about 7 weeks. Your chemotherapy will be every 3 to 4 weeks or perhaps weekly. 

Chemoradiotherapy can be quite a tough treatment. It can cause damage to some healthy cells at the same time. This might cause side effects. You will need some tests to check you are well enough to cope with it. 

Ocassionally you might need a short break during treatment. This will allow time for side effects to improve. Treatment usually starts again after a few days rest. Research shows a short time delay does not affect how well the treatment works. 

After chemoradiotherapy, if there are still signs of cancer, you will have surgery to remove the cancer. If the cancer comes back in the future, you might be able to have surgery to remove it then. 

Chemotherapy

You usually have treatment in the chemotherapy day unit or you might need to stay in hospital for a day or more.

Radiotherapy

Before you begin treatment, the radiotherapy team works out how much radiation you need. They divide it into a number of smaller treatments. They call each treatment a fraction. Your radiographers might make small marks on your skin in the treatment area.

You have radiotherapy treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. Usually treatments are once a day from Monday to Friday with a rest at the weekend.

Side effects

It is likely that you will have some side effects from your treatment. You can read about chemotherapy and radiotherapy side effects at the links below. But when you have both treatments together some of the side effects can be more severe.

In particular, you are likely to get a very sore mouth and throat. For some people, the mouth is so sore that swallowing is very difficult. You might need a feeding tube so that you can get enough liquid and calories.

You will also have painkillers. If needed, you can have a strong painkiller, such as morphine, to help make your mouth more comfortable.

When you have a very sore mouth and throat, it is important to be careful about infection. Try to keep your mouth clean and follow the advice of your nurse and dentist. Contact the hospital at the first sign of infection, particularly a high temperature with chills, a sore chest, or a cough. It is likely that you will need to go to the hospital and have antibiotics through a drip.

Last reviewed: 
16 Oct 2014
  • Head and Neck Cancer: Multidisciplinary Management Guidelines
    British Association of Head and Neck Oncologists (2011) 4th edition

  • The CSROC Expert Panel. Interventions for the treatment of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer: radiotherapy.
    A Glenny and others, (2010)
    Cochrane database of systematic reviews 

  •  Interventions for the treatment of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer: chemotherapy
    A Glenny and others (2011)
    Cochrane database of systematic reviews 

Information and help

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