Cancer chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Unlike radiation and surgery, which are localized treatments, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, meaning the drugs travel throughout the whole body. This means chemotherapy can reach cancer cells that may have spread, or metastasized, to other areas.

Multiple trials of chemotherapy for esophageal cancer have produced up to a 50% response rate. However, the responses are short-lived and have neither cured nor improved long-term survival. Response rates do not differ between squamous cell and adenocarcinoma.

Chemotherapy Drugs Used for Esophageal Cancer  

Practically every type of chemotherapeutic agent has been used to treat esophageal cancer. Among the more successful are:

  • 5-fluorouracil (5-FU)
  • Cisplatin (Platinol-AQ)
  • Docetaxel (Taxotere)
  • Irinotecan (Camptosar)
  • Mitomycin (Mutamycin)
  • Paclitaxel (Taxol, Onxol)
  • Vindesine (Eldisine)
  • Vinorelbine (Navelbine)


Single agent chemotherapy has produced brief responses in 15% to 30% of patients. Combination treatment with a cisplatin-based combination of two or three agents, either alone or as a prelude to surgery , has resulted in response rates up to 50%, but with no clear increase in survival. Combining chemotherapy with radiation and/or surgery has also failed to produce a clearly preferable treatment regimen.

Platinum Coordination Complexes  

Platinum-based drugs used for chemotherapy include the following:

  • Carboplatin (Paraplatin)
  • Cisplatin (Platinol-AQ)

Cisplatin is used alone for esophageal cancer and in combination with paclitaxel to treat advanced disease. Due to its lower toxicity, carboplatin is being tested as a substitute for cisplatin in this combination.

Possible side effects of platinum coordination complexes include:

  • Life-threatening allergic reactions
  • Kidney damage
  • Hearing loss
  • Low blood counts
  • Liver damage
  • Nerve damage
  • Blood vessel damage
  • Hair loss


Common name: mitomycin (Mutamycin)

Mitomycin is used alone or in combination to treat esophageal cancer.

Possible side effects of anticancer antibiotics include:

  • Low blood counts (most common and severe)
  • Rashes
  • Hair loss
  • Injection site inflammation
  • Kidney damage
  • Lung damage
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting


Common name: 5-fluorouracil (5-FU)

5-FU is one of several chemotherapeutic agents commonly used to treat carcinomas. It can be used alone or in combination.

Possible side effects of antimetabolites include:

  • Mouth and throat inflammation
  • Low blood counts
  • Severe allergic reactions
  • Visual impairment
  • Liver damage
  • Fever
  • Nosebleeds
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • Heart pain (angina)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Discoloration of skin


Common names include:

  • Docetaxel (Taxotere)
  • Paclitaxel (Taxol, Onxol)

Paclitaxel combined with cisplatin or carboplatin is a favored regimen for treating esophageal cancer.