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About chemotherapy for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

Chemotherapy means treatment using anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs. The drugs circulate throughout the body in the bloodstream.

Chemotherapy to try and control a cancer that has come back

You may have chemotherapy on its own if your cancer is advanced, or has come back after treatment with surgery or radiotherapy. The chemotherapy can help to relieve your symptoms and may slow the growth of your cancer. It will not cure the cancer but can control it for some time.

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy (chemoradiation)

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy at the same time is called synchronous therapy or chemoradiation. The chemotherapy helps the radiotherapy to work better. This treatment is most commonly used for oropharyngeal cancer that has spread beyond where it first started. It aims to get rid of the cancer completely. It is also used for small mouth cancers so that you can avoid surgery but this is rare. Chemoradiation is quite tough treatment to get through. You will need to have tests to see if you are fit enough to cope.

Chemotherapy to shrink a large cancer before surgery or radiotherapy

If your cancer has not spread to other organs, but is too big to operate on, your doctor may suggest chemotherapy before surgery. The aim of the treatment is to shrink your cancer with chemotherapy before you have surgery or treatment with radiotherapy. This treatment is still being researched in clinical trials.

 

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

 

 

How chemotherapy works

Chemotherapy means treatment using anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs. These drugs disrupt the growth of cancer cells and destroy them. The chemotherapy drugs circulate throughout the body in the bloodstream.

 

Chemotherapy for mouth cancer that has come back

You may have chemotherapy on its own if your cancer is advanced, or has come back after treatment with surgery or radiotherapy. The chemotherapy can help to relieve your symptoms and may shrink the cancer or slow its growth. It will not cure the cancer but can control it for some time.

 

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are sometimes given at the same time. The chemotherapy helps the radiotherapy to work better. It is most commonly used for oropharyngeal cancer that has spread into surrounding areas or into nearby lymph nodes. It aims to get rid of the cancer completely. It is also used to treat small mouth cancers instead of surgery but this is not common. 

Chemoradiation is quite tough treatment to get through. You will need to have tests to see if you are fit enough to cope. There is detailed information about chemoradiation for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer and its side effects in this section.

 

Chemotherapy to shrink mouth cancer before surgery or radiotherapy

If your cancer has not spread to other organs, but is too big to operate on, your doctor may suggest chemotherapy before surgery. This treatment is not commonly used. Your doctor may call it neoadjuvant chemotherapy. The aim of the treatment is to shrink your cancer with chemotherapy before you have surgery or treatment with radiotherapy. This treatment is still being researched in trials to see how well it works.

 

Dietary or herbal supplements and chemotherapy

We don't yet know much scientifically about how some nutritional or herbal supplements may interact with chemotherapy. Some could be harmful. It is very important to let your doctors know if you take any supplements. Also tell them if you are prescribed therapies by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners.

Talk to your specialist about any other tablets or medicines you take while you are having active treatment. There is information about the safety of herbal, vitamin and diet supplements in the complementary therapies section.

Some studies seem to suggest that fish oil preparations may reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs. If you are taking, or thinking of taking, these supplements talk to your doctor to find out whether they could affect your treatment.

 

More information about chemotherapy

For general information about chemotherapy, look at the main chemotherapy section. It explains the treatment in detail including

If you would like more information about chemotherapy, ask your chemotherapy nurse or contact our cancer information nurses. They would be happy to help.

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Updated: 14 October 2014