Medications for Hypopharyngeal Cancer

NYU Langone doctors sometimes use medications to treat people with hypopharyngeal cancer. They often prescribe chemotherapy, in which drugs are used to destroy cancer cells throughout the body, in combination with radiation therapy. This approach is called chemoradiation.

Chemoradiation may be used after surgery or instead of surgery to manage hypopharyngeal tumors.

Doctors may sometimes use chemotherapy alone or targeted drugs—which home in on cancer cells while sparing healthy tissue—to shrink tumors, helping relieve pain and discomfort.

Chemoradiation

If cancer has spread to area lymph nodes or other nearby structures, your doctors may recommend treating it with chemoradiation.

With this approach, chemotherapy drugs make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy. This increased sensitivity allows the radiation therapy to destroy more cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs are usually given through a vein with intravenous (IV) infusion on a treatment schedule called a cycle.

Medical and radiation oncologists work together to determine the right chemoradiation schedule for you. For example, doctors may give a chemotherapy drug at the beginning, middle, and end of a six- or seven-week radiation treatment period, for a total of three cycles. Another option is to give a chemotherapy drug once a week during radiation therapy. Chemotherapy alone may also be given every three weeks for two to three cycles before chemoradiation therapy starts.

Chemotherapy

For people who have hypopharyngeal cancer that has spread to distant parts of the body, doctors may prescribe chemotherapy alone. Chemotherapy can help to prevent cancer from spreading further, helping to improve a person’s quality of life. However, chemotherapy alone cannot completely destroy hypopharyngeal cancer cells.

In a typical chemotherapy cycle, the drugs are given on one day or over a period of a few days, followed by one to three weeks of rest. Your medical oncologist determines the duration and number of cycles that are best for you.

Usually, a combination of chemotherapy drugs for hypopharyngeal cancer includes the medication cisplatin. Other drugs include carboplatin, 5-fluorouracil, and docetaxel.

Targeted Drugs

If a person cannot tolerate the side effects of chemotherapy, a targeted drug, which kills cancer cells while avoiding healthy tissue, may be an option. Targeted drugs sometimes have different or fewer side effects than chemotherapy.

For example, the drug cetuximab targets a protein called epidermal growth factor receptor, which may be present in tumors. This protein signals cancer cells to grow and divide. Cetuximab interferes with the function of this protein, causing tumors to shrink.

This drug is given by IV infusion about once a week, typically for a number of weeks determined by your doctor.

Managing the Side Effects of Medications

Most side effects from medications used to manage hypopharyngeal cancer are temporary. Side effects of chemotherapy may include fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, and sores in the mouth and throat. Cetuximab is associated with a skin rash and itching.

To lessen side effects, your doctor may adjust the dosage of these drugs, prescribe another medication, or recommend integrative health therapies or support services.

Clinical Trials

NYU Langone physicians may prescribe immunotherapy in a clinical trial to manage hypopharyngeal cancer that has spread outside the hypopharynx. Immunotherapy helps to boost the body’s immune response to the cancer. It is given through intravenous infusion on a schedule determined by your doctor. NYU Langone doctors can discuss whether a clinical trial is an option for you.

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