Head & Neck Cancer

Chemotherapy / Immunotherapy

The role of chemotherapy and immunotherapy in treating head and neck cancer

Many head and neck cancers can be cured, particularly if they are found early.

When someone is diagnosed with head and neck cancer, they will need a multi-disciplinary team to care for them. As well as an ENT surgeon such as A/Prof McGuinness, the team will include a medical oncologist. The medical oncologist will consider the options of chemotherapy and immunotherapy and will include you in the discussion regarding each treatment including the benefits and expected outcomes, as well as any possible side effects.

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What are the main treatments for head and neck cancer?

The main treatment options for head and neck cancer are surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a treatment provided by a medical oncologist which uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. The goal of chemotherapy is to keep the cancer cells from growing, dividing and making more cells, and because cancer cells grow and divide faster than normal cells, it has more of an effect on these cells. It is a widely used to treat over two hundred different types of cancer including head and neck cancer and involves medication either taken intravenously or orally. Chemotherapy can involve the use of a single drug or a combination of drugs.

Are there side effects from chemotherapy?

As the drugs used for chemotherapy are powerful, they can also damage healthy cells as well as cancer cells which can cause side effects which vary for each individual. The most common side effects related to chemotherapy for head and neck cancer are:

Your oncology team will be monitoring your response to chemotherapy and if it is safe to do so, they can adjust your treatment to lessen the side effects.

What is Immunotherapy?

The main difference between immunotherapy and chemotherapy is that in contrast to chemotherapy using drugs to kill cancer cells, immunotherapy enables your own immune system to recognise, target and destroy cancer cells. Cancer cells can “hide” from the immune system, and aggressive cancer cells can overwhelm the immune system.

Immunotherapy makes cancer cells recognisable to the immune system, so they are unable to hide from our system’s natural defence antibodies. Some immunotherapy is also known as targeted treatment.

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Does immunotherapy have side effects?

Yes, immunotherapy also has side effects as it causes the body’s immune system to become over-activated or misdirected, although any side-effects improve after the first treatment. As with chemotherapy, side effects can be managed by your oncologist. They can include:

What is the better option – chemotherapy or immunotherapy?

Chemotherapy only works when the drugs are in your system, while immunotherapy can continue to work long after you have completed your treatment. Immunotherapy can also sometimes work when other treatments have failed. It can also help other therapies including chemotherapy to be more effective.

Your oncologist will discuss each treatment option with you and outline the benefits and negatives of each, so you are actively involved in your treatment plan.