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Chemotherapy treatment

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. They work by disrupting the growth of cancer cells. The drugs circulate in the bloodstream around the body.

When you have it

The main treatment for salivary gland cancer is surgery. At the moment, there isn’t good evidence showing that chemotherapy lowers the risk of the cancer coming back after surgery. So it is unusual to have it for early stage salivary gland cancer.

You might have chemotherapy if you have advanced salivary gland cancer and you can’t have surgery or radiotherapy.

The chemotherapy might include any of the following drugs:

  • cisplatin
  • carboplatin
  • cyclophosphamide
  • doxorubicin
  • methotrexate
  • paclitaxel

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.

How you have it

You usually have chemotherapy for salivary gland cancer into your bloodstream (intravenously).  

Into your bloodstream

You have the treatment through a drip into your arm or hand. 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 might 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 can usually bring a friend or family member with you.

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

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
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • hair loss
Contact your doctor or nurse immediately if you have any signs of infection such as a temperature higher than 37.5C 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 a few days or so. Your treatment team can help to manage any side effects that you have.

Dietary or herbal supplements and chemotherapy

Let your doctors know if you take any supplements or if you have been prescribed anything by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners.

It’s unclear how some nutritional or herbal supplements might interact with chemotherapy. They could be harmful.

When you go home

Chemotherapy for salivary gland cancer 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: 
05 Nov 2019
  • Principles and practice of oncology (11th edition)
    VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg
    Lipponcott, Wiliams and Wilkins, 2019

  • Malignant salivary gland tumors: Treatment of recurrent and metastatic disease

    S Laurie and B Schiff

    UpToDate, 2016

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley Blackwell, 2015

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