Chemotherapy for nasopharyngeal cancer

Chemotherapy uses anticancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is usually used to treat nasopharyngeal 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 nasopharyngeal cancer. This is called chemoradiation. The 2 treatments are given during the same time period. Each treatment makes the other more effective.

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

  • as the first treatment before radiation therapy
  • to destroy cancer cells left behind after radiation therapy and reduce the risk that the cancer will come back (recur) (called adjuvant chemotherapy)
  • to destroy cancer cells left behind after surgery
  • to treat nasopharyngeal cancer that has spread (metastasized) to other parts of the body

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 nasopharynx.

Chemotherapy drugs commonly used for nasopharyngeal cancer

The most common chemotherapy drugs used alone to treat nasopharyngeal cancer are:

  • cisplatin, as part of chemoradiation
  • 5-fluorouracil (Adrucil, 5-FU)

The most common chemotherapy drug combination used to treat nasopharyngeal cancer is cisplatin and 5-fluorouracil.

If nasopharyngeal cancer does not respond to drugs used in earlier treatments or if it comes back, the following drugs may be used alone or in combination:

  • methotrexate
  • epirubicin (Pharmorubicin)
  • doxorubicin (Adriamycin)
  • paclitaxel (Taxol)
  • capecitabine (Xeloda)
  • bleomycin (Blenoxane)
  • gemcitabine (Gemzar)
  • docetaxel (Taxotere)
  • carboplatin (Paraplatin, Paraplatin AQ)

Other chemotherapy combinations used to treat nasopharyngeal cancer include:

  • cisplatin with either docetaxel, paclitaxel, gemcitabine or capecitabine
  • carboplatin with either docetaxel or paclitaxel

Side effects

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for nasopharyngeal 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 nasopharyngeal 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 . Nasopharyngeal Cancer . 2015 :
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology . Nasopharyngeal Cancer . 2016 :
  • Hu K, Chan A, Costantino P, Harrison L . Cancer of the nasopharynx: General principles and management. Harrison LB, Sessions RB, Kies MS (eds.). Head and Neck Cancer: A Multidisciplinary Approach. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2014: 22A: 588 - 617.
  • Ng WT, Ngan RKC, Chan SH, et al . Management of nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Bernier J (ed.). Head and Neck Cancer: Multimodality Management. Springer; 2016: 26: 445 - 473.