Chemotherapy drugs are used to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. Most people think of chemotherapy as an IV infusion treatment that can take several hours at a time while sitting in the cancer center. Some chemotherapy drugs are now available in a format that you can take by mouth. Here is what you need to know about oral chemotherapy.
What is Oral Chemotherapy?
Oral chemotherapy allows patients to take powerful cancer-fighting medications through a pill or a liquid. Since no injections or IV lines are required for this form of chemotherapy, patients are able to take the medication at home making it a more comfortable and convenient form of cancer treatment.
It’s important to understand that not all chemotherapy medications and regimens are available as oral medication. Talking with your oncologist will help in determining if oral chemo is an option for you based on your individual medical needs.
Being able to take chemo medicine at home allows patients to spend less time in the cancer center, which may be preferable because of the lowered immune system that often results from cancer. Keep in mind that taking chemo at home doesn’t mean that you won’t be monitored. Quite the opposite, in fact. Your Affiliated Oncologists care team will help you throughout the treatment process, tracking your progress and addressing any side effects that may arise.
How Does Oral Chemotherapy Work?
Oral chemotherapy works the same way as chemotherapy via infusion does. The only difference is how the drugs enter the body. In most cases, oral chemotherapy is taken in pill form. The dosage of the pill will depend on various factors including the specific medication, the type of cancer, and what stage the cancer is in.
While chemotherapy drugs work differently in how they target cancer cells, they all share a common goal: to attack quick-growing cancer cells by either killing them or slowing their growth. And oftentimes, these drugs can affect healthy cells in the body, resulting in side effects. As with other types of chemo, this means that your chemotherapy treatment cycles may need to be spread out so your body has a chance to recover and also to reduce the medication's impact on your system.
You will be given instructions by your medical oncologist about how and when to take the oral chemo drugs. It is important that you take it exactly as prescribed on the correct day, the correct time of day, and with any other requirements such as a full stomach (or an empty stomach).
Failing to do so could have an impact on how well the treatment works and how you feel during treatment. If you're worried about taking an oral medication because you have been nauseous or vomiting, call your oncologist before taking it. They may need to change your dosage or switch you to a different type of chemotherapy.
Keep your oncology team informed of any side effects you may be experiencing as well.
What Cancers Can be Treated With Oral Chemotherapy?
Some chemotherapy medications aren’t available in oral form. Your oncologist will select the chemotherapy that's right for you based on the specific traits of the cancer type, your personal health factors, and clinical research results. Depending on your specific situation, oral chemo may be the best option.
Currently, oral chemotherapies are available for the following cancers:
- Colorectal cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Breast cancer
- Small cell lung cancer
- Multiple myeloma
Thanks to ongoing research, more oral chemo drugs are becoming available all the time.
What Are the Side Effects of Oral Chemotherapy?
Because oral chemotherapy can be as strong as the medication given through infusions, it will have similar side effects. Most of these side effects stem from how the drugs work inside the body. Some common side effects of oral chemotherapy drugs include:
- Low blood count
- Bleeding gums
- Mouth sores
- Loss of appetite
Your oncology team will talk with you about what side effects you can expect as well as the best ways to deal with them while at home. There may even be some preventive medicines they can give to help you avoid some side effects.
Take note of any side effects you experience while taking your oral medication. If they are severe, or making it uncomfortable to get rest, call the cancer center and talk about what can be done to help you. Otherwise, note the side effects and tell your oncology team next time you see them.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Oral Chemotherapy
Like all treatments, it’s wise to have a conversation with your cancer care provider about what to expect before you start taking oral chemotherapy. Prior to your appointment, jot down any questions you have, leaving room for answers. This notebook will help you track the information given to you during your appointment and remember it later on.
Some potential questions you might ask your oncology team:
- Why is oral chemotherapy the best option for this type of cancer?
- What is the name of the drug prescribed to me?
- When do I take my dose? And how many doses do I need to take?
- What happens if I miss a dose of the medication?
- Can oral chemo be taken on an empty stomach or is it best to eat first?
- What is the best way to handle and store the medication?
- What are the potential side effects I should know about?
- How can I best manage those side effects?
- Are there side effects that you need to know about right away?
- Will this medication be used in combination with other cancer treatments?
Remember, your oncology team is here to work with you. Ask questions about your treatment and get clarification when you need it by giving us a call.
Is Oral Chemotherapy Right for You?
Oral chemotherapy may not be available for you. But if it is, know that it is an equally effective treatment option in comparison to other chemotherapies that are given through an infusion.
Your Affiliated Oncologists care team can talk to you about whether oral chemotherapy is an option.