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Chemotherapy for salivary gland cancer

Chemotherapy uses anticancer, or cytotoxic, drugs to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy is rarely offered for salivary gland tumours because treatment with surgery and radiation therapy is usually effective. Chemotherapy is sometimes used as part of chemoradiation. Chemoradiation is treatment in which chemotherapy is given during the same time period as radiation therapy. If you are offered chemotherapy, your healthcare team will consider your personal needs to plan the drugs, doses and schedules. You may also receive other treatments.

You may have chemotherapy:

  • as part of chemoradiation after surgery if you have a high-grade or intermediate-grade tumour
  • if your tumour couldn’t be removed with surgery
  • if your tumour doesn’t respond to radiation therapy
  • to relieve pain or control the symptoms of advanced or recurrent salivary gland cancer (called palliative chemotherapy)

Currently, chemotherapy is not offered to people who have low-grade tumours or tumours that are completely removed with surgery. More research is needed to find out which chemotherapy drugs or combinations of drugs may work best for the different types of cancerous salivary gland tumours.

Chemotherapy drugs commonly used for salivary gland cancer

The most common chemotherapy drugs used to treat salivary gland cancer are:

  • cisplatin (Platinol AQ)
  • vinorelbine (Navelbine)
  • paclitaxel (Taxol)
  • mitoxantrone (Novantrone)
  • epirubicin (Pharmorubicin)
  • 5-fluorouracil (Adrucil, 5-FU)
  • docetaxel (Taxotere)

The most common chemotherapy combinations used to treat salivary gland cancer are:

  • cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan, Procytox), doxorubicin (Adriamycin) and cisplatin
  • cisplatin, doxorubicin and 5-fluorouracil
  • cisplatin, epirubicin and 5-fluorouracil
  •  vinorelbine and cisplatin
  • gemcitabine (Gemzar) and cisplatin

When chemotherapy is given, it 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 salivary gland.

Side effects

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for salivary gland 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. Side effects can develop 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, and your overall health. Some common side effects of chemotherapy drugs used for salivary gland 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 quite 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.