Chemotherapy Drugs and Side Effects

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. Chemotherapy has been used for many years and is one of the most common treatments for cancer. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell's ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used alone for some types of cancer or in combination with other treatments such as radiation or surgery. Often, a combination of chemotherapy drugs is used to fight a specific cancer. Certain chemotherapy drugs may be given in a specific order depending on the type of cancer it is being used to treat.

While chemotherapy can be quite effective in treating certain cancers, chemotherapy drugs reach all parts of the body, not just the cancer cells. Because of this, there may be many side effects during treatment. Being able to anticipate these side effects can help you and your caregivers prepare and, in some cases, prevent these symptoms from occurring.

How is chemotherapy administered?

Chemotherapy can be given:
  • as a pill to swallow
  • as an injection into the muscle or fat tissue
  • intravenously (directly to the bloodstream; also called IV)
  • topically (applied to the skin)
  • directly into a body cavity
To reduce the damage to healthy cells and to give them a chance to recover, chemotherapy is given in cycles. Chemotherapy may be given daily, weekly, every few weeks, or monthly, depending on your specific situation.

Chemotherapy is usually given in an outpatient setting, such as a hospital, clinic, or physician’s office. Patients receiving chemotherapy will be watched for reactions during treatments. Since each chemotherapy treatment session may last for a while, patients are encouraged to take along something that is comforting, such as music to listen to. It is also recommended to bring something to help pass the time, such as a deck of cards or a book.

What are some of the chemotherapy drugs and their potential side effects?

There are over 50 chemotherapy drugs that are commonly used. The following table gives examples of some chemotherapy drugs and their various names. It lists some of the cancer types but not necessarily all of the cancers for which they are used, and describes various side effects. Side effects may occur just after treatment (days or weeks) or they may occur later (months or years) after the chemotherapy has been given. The side effects listed below do not comprise an all-inclusive list. Other side effects are possible.

As each person's individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his/her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild, or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any/all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins.


Chemotherapy Drug How Administered Possible Side Effects 
Carboplatin (Paraplatin)
  • usually given intravenously (IV)
  • decrease in blood cell counts
 
  • used for cancers of the ovary, head and neck, and lung
  • hair loss (reversible)
   
  • confusion
   
  • nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (usually short-term side effect) 
Cisplatin (Platinol, Platinol-AQ)
  • usually given intravenously (IV)
  • decrease in blood cell counts 
 
  • used for cancers of the bladder, ovary, and testicles 
  • allergic reaction, including a rash and/or labored breathing (rare) 
   
  • nausea and vomiting that usually occurs for 24 hours or longer 
   
  • ringing in ears and hearing loss
   
  • fluctuations in blood electrolytes
   
  • kidney damage
 Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) not common
  • can be given intravenously (IV) or orally
  • decrease in blood cell counts
 
  • used for lymphoma, breast cancer, and ovarian carcinoma
  • nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain
   
  • decreased apetite
   
  • hair loss (reversible)
   
  • bladder damage
   
  • fertility impairment
   
  • lung or heart damage (with high doses)
   
  • secondary malignancies (rare)
 Docetaxel (Taxotere)
  • given intravenously (IV)
  • decrease in blood cell counts 
 
  • used for breast cancer, lung, and prostate
  • nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain
   
  • diarrhea
   
  • decreased appetite
   
  • hair thinning
   
  • rash
   
  • numbness and tingling in hands and feet
Doxorubicin (Adriamycin)
  • given intravenously (IV)
  • decrease in blood cell counts
 
  • used for breast cancer, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma
  • mouth ulcers 
   
  • hair loss (reversible)
   
  • nausea and vomiting
   
  • heart damage 
Erlotinib (Tarceva, OSI-774)
  • given orally
  • rash and other skin changes

  • used for non small cell lung cancer
  • diarrhea
Etoposide (VePesid, VP-16)
  • given intravenously (IV)
  • hair loss (reversible)
 
  • used for
  • decrease in blood cell counts
   
  • nausea and vomiting
   
  • allergic reaction (rare)
   
  • mouth ulcers
   
  • low blood pressure (during administration) (rare)
   
  • decreased appetite
   
  • diarrhea and abdominal pain
   
  • bronchospasm (rare)
 
  • flu-like symptoms (rare)

  • rash and other skin changes
Fluorouracil (5-FU)
  • given intravenously (IV)
  • decrease in blood cell counts
 
  • used for cancers of the colon, breast, stomach, head and neck
  • diarrhea
   
  • mouth ulcers 
   
  • photosensitivity
   
  • dry skin, darkening of skin and nail beds
Gemcitabine (Gemzar)
  • given intravenously (IV)
  • decrease in blood cell counts

  • used for cancers of the pancreas, breast, ovary, and lung
  • nausea and vomiting
 
  • fever and flu-like symptoms

 
  • rash
Imatinib Mesylate (Gleevec, STI 571)
  • given orally
  • nausea and vomiting 
 
  • used for chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) 
  • fluid retention (swelling around ankles, eyes)
   
  • muscle cramps
   
  • diarrhea
   
  • gastrointestinal bleeding
   
  • rash
Irinotecan (Camptosar, CPT-11)
  • given intravenously (IV)
  • decrease in blood cell counts
 
  • used for cancers of the colon and rectum
  • diarrhea
   
  • fatigue 
Methotrexate (Folex, Mexate, Amethopterin)
  • may be given intravenously (IV), intrathecally (into the spinal column), or orally 
  • decrease in blood cell counts 
 
  • used for cancers of the breast, lung, blood, bone, and lymph system
  • nausea and vomiting 
   
  • mouth ulcers
   
  • skin rashes and photosensitivity 
   
  • dizziness, headache, or drowsiness 
   
  • kidney damage (with a high-dose therapy)
   
  • liver damage (rare) 
   
  • hair loss (reversible)
Paclitaxel (Taxol, Abraxane)
  • given intravenously (IV) 
  • decrease in blood cell counts 
 
  • used with cancers of the breast, ovary, and lung
  • allergic reaction 
   
  • nausea and vomiting 
   
  • loss of appetite 
   
  • change in taste 
   
  • thin or brittle hair
   
  • joint pain (short term) 
   
  • numbness or tingling in the fingers or toes 
Sorafenib (Nexavar)
  • given orally
  • high blood pressure (during first few weeks of treatment)
 
  • used for advanced kidney cancer
  • rash, other skin changes
   
  • diarrhea 
   
  • fatigue 
   
  • hair loss 
   
  • nausea and vomiting
Sunitinib (Sutent) 
  • given orally 
  • diarrhea
 
  • used for gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) and kidney cancer 
  • nausea and vomiting 
   
  • mouth ulcers
   
  • upset stomach
   
  • skin changes, including skin discoloration and rash 
   
  • fatigue 
   
  • high blood pressure 
   
  • bleeding
   
  • swelling 
   
  • taste disturbance 
Topotecan (Hycamtin) 
  • given intravenously (IV)
  • decrease in blood cell counts 
 
  • used for cancers of the ovary and lung 
  • diarrhea 
   
  • hair loss (reversible) 
   
  • nausea and vomiting 
Vincristine (Oncovin)
  • usually given intravenously (IV) 
  • numbness or tingling in the fingers or toes 
 
  • used for leukemia and lymphoma 
  • weakness
   
  • loss of reflexes 
   
  • jaw pain 
   
  • hair loss (reversible) 
   
  • constipation or abdominal cramping 
Vinblastine (Velban) 
  • given intravenously (IV)
  • decrease in blood cell counts
 
  • used for lymphoma and cancers of the testis and head and neck 
  • hair loss (reversible) 
   
  • constipation or abdominal cramping
   
  • jaw pain 
   
  • numbness or tingling in the fingers or toes 


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