Chemotherapy for hypopharyngeal cancer

Chemotherapy uses anticancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is usually used to treat hypopharyngeal cancer. Your healthcare team will consider your personal needs to plan the drugs, doses and schedules of chemotherapy. You may also receive other treatments.

Chemotherapy is often combined with radiation therapy to treat hypopharyngeal cancer. This is called chemoradiation. The 2 treatments are given during the same time period.

Chemotherapy is given for different reasons. You may have chemotherapy or chemoradiation:

  • to shrink a tumour before other treatments such as surgery or radiation therapy (called neoadjuvant chemotherapy)
  • to destroy cancer cells left behind after surgery to reduce the risk that the cancer will come back (recur) (called adjuvant chemotherapy)
  • if the cancer is too large or has spread too far to remove
  • to relieve pain or control the symptoms of advanced hypopharyngeal cancer (called palliative chemotherapy)

Chemotherapy is usually a systemic therapy. This means that the drugs travel through the bloodstream to reach and destroy cancer cells all over the body, including those that may have broken away from the primary tumour in the hypopharynx.

Chemotherapy drugs used for hypopharyngeal cancer

Single drugs or a combination of 2 or more drugs may be given to treat hypopharyngeal cancer.

The most common chemotherapy drugs used to treat hypopharyngeal cancer are:

  • cisplatin
  • carboplatin
  • fluorouracil (also called 5-fluorouracil or 5-FU)
  • methotrexate
  • paclitaxel
  • docetaxel
  • bleomycin
  • ifosfamide (Ifex)

Sometimes the targeted therapy drug cetuximab (Erbitux) is combined with chemotherapy to treat hypopharyngeal cancer.

The most common chemotherapy drug combination used to treat hypopharyngeal cancer is cisplatin and fluorouracil. Docetaxel is sometimes added to this combination.

Cisplatin is usually the chemotherapy drug given with radiation therapy as part of chemoradiation.

Side effects

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for hypopharyngeal cancer, but everyone’s experience is different. Some people have many side effects. Other people have few or none at all.

Chemotherapy may cause side effects because it can damage healthy cells as it kills cancer cells. If you develop side effects, they can happen any time during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after chemotherapy. Sometimes late side effects develop months or years after chemotherapy. Most side effects go away on their own or can be treated, but some side effects may last a long time or become permanent.

Side effects of chemotherapy will depend mainly on the type of drug, the dose, how it’s given, whether radiation therapy is given at the same time (chemoradiation) and your overall health. Side effects of chemoradiation can be more severe than side effects of chemotherapy alone.

Some common side effects of chemotherapy drugs used for hypopharyngeal cancer are:

Tell your healthcare team if you have these side effects or others you think might be from chemotherapy. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Information about specific cancer drugs

Details on specific drugs change regularly. Find out more about sources of drug information and where to get details on specific drugs.

Questions to ask about chemotherapy

Find out more about chemotherapy and side effects of chemotherapy. To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about chemotherapy.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Treating Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer. 2021.
  • Bozec A, Poissonnet G, Dassonville O, Culie D. Current therapeutic strategies for patients with hypopharyngeal carcinoma: oncologic and functional outcomes. Journal of Clinical Medicine. 2023: 12(3): 1237.
  • Machiels JP, Leemans CR, & Golusinski W. Squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity, larynx, oropharynx and hypopharynx: EHNS-ESMO-ESTRO clinical practices guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology. 2020: 31(11): 146201475.
  • Mendenhall WM, Dziegielewski PT, Dunn LA. Cancer of the larynx and hypopharynx. DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg S. eds. DeVita Hellman and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Wolters Kluwer; 2023: Kindle version, chapter 25,
  • PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Hypopharyngeal Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®) – Health Professional. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2019:
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network . NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Head and Neck Cancer Version 2.2023 . 2023:
  • Parmar A, Macluskey M, Goldrick N, Conway DI, Glenny AM, et al. Interventions for the treatment of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer: chemotherapy. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2021: 12(12): CD006386.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

1-888-939-3333 | | © 2024 Canadian Cancer Society