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Chemotherapy treatment

See when, where and how you might have chemotherapy for nasopharyngeal cancer, and what the side effects can be.

What chemotherapy is

Chemotherapy means treatment using anti cancer or cytotoxic drugs. These drugs disrupt the growth of cancer cells and destroy them. The drugs circulate in the bloodstream around the body.

How you have it

You might have:

  • chemotherapy combined with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)
  • chemotherapy on its own

You might have chemotherapy before radiotherapy. This aims to shrink the tumour and make it easier to treat with radiotherapy.

You might have 2 or more chemotherapy drugs together. Using 2 or more drugs together sometimes works better than using one drug.

Chemotherapy with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)

If your nasopharyngeal cancer has grown into lymph nodes or tissues around your nasopharynx, you may have chemotherapy and radiotherapy at the same time. You might hear your doctor call this chemoradiotherapy.

Some chemotherapy drugs make cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy, so doctors use them together. Chemoradiotherapy is quite a tough treatment to get through. You will have some tests to see if you’re fit enough to cope with the side effects. If chemoradiotherapy is not suitable for you, you have radiotherapy alone to treat your cancer.

Chemotherapy on its own

There is some research to suggest that people with stage 3 and stage 4 nasopharyngeal cancer may be helped by extra chemotherapy as well as chemoradiotherapy. This can help to control the disease and reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. You may have the extra chemotherapy before or after your chemoradiotherapy. Doctors call it adjuvant chemotherapy if you have it after radiotherapy, or neo adjuvant if you have it before.

Having chemotherapy over a longer period of time does cause added side effects and may only be suitable for some patients. There are still some questions to be answered about this extra chemotherapy, such as the best drugs to use, the precise dose and the timing of treatments. We also need to know more about how useful extra chemotherapy is in improving long term survival.

If the cancer has spread to another part of your body or has come back after treatment, you may have chemotherapy alone. This may shrink the cancer and help to control any symptoms the cancer is causing.

Chemotherapy drugs

Into your bloodstream

You have the treatment through a drip into your arm. A nurse puts a small tube (a cannula) into one of your veins and connects the drip to it.

You might need a central line. This is a long plastic tube that gives the drugs into a large vein, either in your chest or through a vein in your arm. It stays in while you’re having treatment, which may be for a few months.

Where you have chemotherapy

You usually have treatment into your bloodstream at the cancer day clinic. You’ll sit in a chair for a few hours so it’s a good idea to take newspapers, books or electronic devices to help to pass the time.

You have some types of chemotherapy over several days. You might be able to have some drugs through a small portable pump you take home.

For some types of chemotherapy you have to stay in a hospital ward. This could be overnight or for a couple of days.

Before you start chemotherapy

You need to have blood tests to make sure it’s safe to start treatment. You have these either a few days before or on the day you start treatment. You have blood tests before each round or cycle of treatment.

Side effects

Common chemotherapy side effects include:

  • feeling sick
  • loss of appetite
  • losing weight
  • feeling very tired
  • a lower resistance to infections
  • bleeding and bruising easily
Contact the doctor or nurse immediately if you have any signs of infection such as a temperature higher than 38C or generally feeling unwell. Infections can make you very unwell very quickly.

Side effects depend on:

  • which drugs you have
  • how much of each drug you have
  • how you react

Tell your treatment team about any side effects that you have.

Most side effects only last for the few days that you’re having the chemotherapy drugs. The team caring for you can help to reduce your side effects.

You can read about side effects in detail on the pages about each chemotherapy drug.

Dietary or herbal supplements

We don't yet know much scientifically about how some nutritional or herbal supplements might interact with chemotherapy. Some could be harmful.

It is very important to tell your doctors if you take any supplements, or if you are prescribed them by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners. 

Talk to your specialist about any other tablets or medicines you take while you are having active treatment.

Some studies seem to suggest that fish oil preparations might make some chemotherapy drugs work less well. If you take or are thinking of taking these supplements, talk to your doctor to find out whether they could affect your treatment.

When you go home

Chemotherapy can be difficult to cope with. Tell your doctor or nurse about any problems or side effects that you have. The nurse will give you telephone numbers to call if you have any problems at home.

Last reviewed: 
26 Aug 2014
  • Cancer and its management (6th edition)
    Tobias J and Hochhauser D
    Blackwell, 2010

  • 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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