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Chemoradiotherapy

Having chemotherapy and radiotherapy at the same time is called chemoradiotherapy. See how you might have it for nasopharyngeal cancer.

What it is

Chemoradiotherapy means having chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment together.

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. The drugs circulate throughout the body in the bloodstream.

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells.

Why you have it

Some chemotherapy drugs help to make cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy. 

Chemoradiotherapy works better than radiotherapy alone for people whose cancer has grown into the tissue around the nasopharynx, or into nearby lymph nodes.

Who has it

Chemoradiothearpy can be quite a tough treatment to have. The side effects can be more severe than the side effects of radiotherapy or chemotherapy on their own. So you have tests to see if you’re fit enough to have it.

How you have it

How often you have chemotherapy depends on which drug or combination of drugs you have.

You usually have radiotherapy every day, from Monday to Friday, for about 7 weeks.

Occasionally, your treatment might need to be stopped for a short time if the side effects become too difficult. But it can usually start again after a few days of rest.

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.

Chemotherapy drugs

You might have one or more of the following chemotherapy drugs along with radiotherapy:

  • cisplatin
  • cisplatin and fluorouracil
  • carboplatin
  • caclitaxel (Taxol)
  • docetaxel (Taxotere)

Some of these treatments are experimental for nasopharyngeal cancer. You might have them as part of a clinical trial.

Side effects

You will probably have some side effects from your treatment. These are the same kinds of side effects you would get from radiotherapy or chemotherapy alone. But when you have both treatments together some of the side effects can be more severe.

Sore mouth and throat

In particular, you are likely to get a very sore mouth and throat. Some people find that their mouth is so sore that it is difficult to swallow. If this happens, you are likely to need a feeding tube so that you can get enough liquid and calories. You also have painkillers. You might need a strong painkiller such as morphine to help make your mouth more comfortable.

When you have a very sore mouth and throat, you must be very 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, or a cough. You might need to go to the hospital and have antibiotics through a drip.

Last reviewed: 
26 Aug 2014
  • Cancer principles and practice of oncology (9th edition)
    De Vita VT, Lawrence TS and Rosenberg SA.
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

  • Nasopharyngeal cancer: EHNS-ESMO-ESTRO Clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up.
    Chan ATC, Gregoire V, Lefebvre JL et al.
    Annals of Oncology 23 (suppl 7) vii83-85, 2012

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