Chemotherapy for Head and Neck Cancer

Using Chemotherapy to Treat Head and Neck Cancer at Virginia Mason in Seattle

Chemotherapy is the use of powerful anti-cancer drugs that kill cancer cells by interfering with their ability to reproduce.

The decision to treat with chemotherapy depends upon many factors, including tumor size and whether or not cancer has spread to the neck lymph nodes. Chemotherapy is often used in combination with surgery and/or radiation. When given prior to treatment, it is called neoadjuvant or induction chemotherapy. It may be given during treatment, concomitant or concurrent chemotherapy, or after treatment, adjuvant chemotherapy. Radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy is being used more and more to try and increase the effectiveness of radiation in locally advanced head and neck tumors and decrease the rate of tumor metastasis.

Typically, chemotherapy is given either weekly or every three weeks but the cycles can vary with each individual’s treatment plan.

Most chemotherapy for head and neck cancer involves a combination of drugs, anywhere from two or more at a time. Some of the more common drugs include:

  • Carboplatin
  • Cisplatin
  • Ifosfamide (IFEX)
  • Iressa
  • Mesna
  • 5-Fluoruoracil (5-FU)
  • Paclitaxel (Taxol)


Side effects of chemotherapy may include nausea, loss of appetite, hair loss and fatigue. More serious risks include a low white blood cell count, which makes patients vulnerable to infection.