Chemotherapy works by destroying or damaging cancer cells. For head and neck cancers, chemotherapy is usually given into a vein through a needle with a catheter (tube) attached.
Usually chemotherapy is used in combination with radiation therapy to make the radiation therapy more effective. It is usually given once a week or once every 3 weeks throughout the duration of radiation therapy. Unlike chemotherapy for many other cancers, most patients do not lose their hair or have severe nausea and vomiting.
The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the medication used and how much you are given by your doctor (the dose). The most common medications used are called cisplatin, carboplatin and cetuximab.
Each person responds to chemotherapy differently. Some people may experience a few side effects while others may not experience any at all.
The following are common side effects of chemotherapy:
nausea and vomiting
loss of feeling in the fingers and toes
some medications may cause kidney damage
ringing in the ears
higher risk of infection (if the chemotherapy reduces the number of white cells in the blood)
Most of these side effects are short lived and may go away once you finish chemotherapy. Some side effects can take months or years to improve or may be permanent.
Once your treatments end, you will have regular follow-up appointments so that your doctor can check your recovery, make sure the cancer has not returned and monitor and treat any side effects that you may have.