Chemoradiotherapy for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

Treatment with chemotherapy and radiotherapy is called chemoradiotherapy.

Mouth cancer

You might have chemoradiotherapy if your cancer has spread into surrounding tissues or lymph nodes. Rarely, it is used for small early mouth cancers (if you cannot have surgery). This is not suitable for everyone. your doctor will discuss your treatment plan with you. 

Oropharyngeal cancer 

You might have chemoradiotherapy after surgery if there is a high risk of your cancer coming back. 

How does chemoradiotherapy work?

Chemotherapy drugs can make cells more sensitive to radiotherapy. This helps radiotherapy to kill cancer cells. Researchers have found that chemoradiotherapy 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. 

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


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


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. This is called radiotherapy planning.

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: 
12 Jun 2018
  • Oropharyngeal cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines
    H Mehanna and others 
    The Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 2016. Volume 130, supplement S2, pages S90-S96

  • Oral cavity and lip cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines
    C Kerawala and others 
    The Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 2016. Volume 130 (Suppl. S2), pages S83–S89

  • 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 

  • Induction Chemotherapy and Sequential Concomitant Chemo-radiation in Locally Advanced Head and Neck Cancers: How Induction-phase Intensity and Treatment Breaks May Impact on Clinical Outcomes

    P Franco and others 

    Anticancer Research 2015 volume 35(11) pages 6247-54