Chemotherapy & Targeted Drugs for Head & Neck Cancer

Perlmutter Cancer Center doctors may use chemotherapy, a group of drugs that destroy cancer cells throughout the body, to manage head and neck cancer. These drugs may also improve the effectiveness of radiation therapy, the use of high energy beams to destroy cancer cells.

Some of these cancers may be treated with targeted medications, which destroy cancer cells but not healthy tissue, or immunotherapy, which uses the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells. These treatments may have different side effects than chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy and Chemoradiation

Chemotherapy may be given at the same time as radiation therapy, an approach called chemoradiation. In this approach, chemotherapy treats the tumor directly and also helps radiation work more effectively. These drugs may be used to destroy tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, liver, and bones.
Many chemotherapy drugs are given through a vein with intravenous (IV) infusion on a treatment schedule called a cycle. The duration and number of cycles depends on the type of head and neck cancer a person has.

Usually, doctors prescribe a combination of drugs. Your doctors work as a team to determine the best chemotherapy regimen for you.

Targeted Drugs

Perlmutter Cancer Center doctors may prescribe a targeted drug, such as cetuximab, to manage head and neck cancer. These drugs, called monoclonal antibodies, are made from immune proteins that target tumor antigens, which cause the body to attack foreign substances or prevent the growth of blood vessels that support tumors. Given through a vein with IV infusion, these drugs block a substance that tells cancer cells to grow and divide. As a result, tumors may shrink.

Targeted drugs are sometimes combined with radiation therapy. For more advanced cancers, doctors may prescribe a combination of targeted drugs and standard chemotherapy drugs.


Your doctor may prescribe immunotherapy, which uses the body’s immune system to help fight cancer. This may include pembrolizumab, an anti-PD1 immunotherapy that that targets cells with a defect in the ability to repair DNA. Nivolumab may be used for people with squamous cell carcinoma that has spread or returned after chemotherapy. It is a checkpoint inhibitor, which assists the immune response to cancer by encouraging T-cells, a type of white blood cell that helps fight disease, to become more active.

Managing Side Effects of Medications

The most common side effects of chemotherapy for head and neck cancer include fatigue, loss of appetite, neuropathy, and hearing loss. Cetuximab is associated with a rash and itching. To lessen side effects, your doctor may adjust the dosage of the drugs, prescribe other medication, or recommend support services.