Chemoradiation for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer | Cancer Research UK
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Chemoradiation for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

This page tells you about the combination treatment of chemotherapy and radiotherapy for cancer of the mouth or oropharynx. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what’s on this page

Chemoradiation for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

Doctors may use a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to treat oropharyngeal cancers. Combining chemotherapy and radiotherapy is called chemoradiation. This treatment may be used for very small mouth cancers but this is rare as surgery is more often used. Chemoradiation treatment is a way to try to increase the effects of the radiotherapy. It can be quite a tough treatment to get through. You will need to have some tests to see if you are fit enough to cope with it.

Your exact treatment plan will depend on what your doctor thinks is best for you. The most common treatment uses the drug cisplatin. You have it during the radiotherapy course, usually every 3 or 4 weeks, or sometimes weekly. Usually you have radiotherapy every day, from Monday to Friday, for about 7 weeks. If there are still signs of cancer after the chemotherapy treatment, you will have surgery to remove it. 

Side effects of chemoradiation

The side effects of chemoradiation will be the same as those with radiotherapy and chemotherapy. But having both treatments, at the same time, means the side effects can be more severe. You may get very tired, and have a very sore mouth.

If your mouth is very sore, it is important to tell your doctor or nurse, so that you can have the right painkillers. For some people, the mouth is so sore that it is difficult to swallow. If this happens to you, you are likely to need to have liquid food through a tube into your stomach or bloodstream so that you can get enough liquid and calories.

It is important that you do not get an infection in your mouth. Your nurse will explain what you need to do to keep your mouth clean and avoid an infection.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the treating mouth cancer section.

 

 

Combination treatment

Having chemotherapy and radiotherapy at the same time is called chemoradiation or synchronous therapy. Researchers have found that chemoradiation works better than radiotherapy alone for people whose oropharyngeal cancer has grown beyond the place where it first started. It may also be used instead of surgery for small mouth cancers but this is not common.

Some chemotherapy drugs help to make the cells more sensitive to the radiotherapy. The most common drug used is cisplatin. You have it during the radiotherapy course, usually every 3 or 4 weeks, or sometimes weekly. Chemoradiation can be quite tough treatment to get through. You will need to have some tests to see if you are fit enough to cope with it.

Your exact treatment plan will depend on what your doctor thinks is best for you. The radiotherapy course usually lasts about 7 weeks. Although it is usual to avoid delay, occasionally you may need to stop the treatment for a short time because of the side effects. But treatment can usually start again after a few days rest. Research has found that a short delay doesn’t affect how well the treatment works.

If there are still signs of cancer after the chemotherapy treatment, you will have surgery to remove it. If the cancer comes back in the future, you may be able to have surgery to remove it then. 

Some other drugs are being researched in combination with radiotherapy and you may have them as part of clinical trials.

 

Side effects of combination treatment

It is likely that you will have some side effects from your treatment. These are the same as those described in the radiotherapy and chemotherapy sections. 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 they have a lot of difficulty swallowing. If this happens to you, you are likely to 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 that you are 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, a sore chest, or a cough. It is likely that you will need to go to the hospital and have antibiotics through a drip.

 

Getting more information

We have more information on this website about radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments.  You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse for written information. You can also phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Our mouth cancer organisations page has details of people who can give information about chemoradiation. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our mouth cancer reading list has information about books and leaflets about mouth cancer treatments.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat, our online forum. Or you can go through My Wavelength. This is a free service that aims to put people with similar medical conditions in touch with each other.

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Updated: 16 October 2014