Chemotherapy is one of the primary ways to treat many types of cancer. Whether it’s used alone or in combination with other cancer treatments, it’s traditionally given through an IV or injections. Some chemotherapies can also be given orally; this is called oral chemotherapy.
What is Oral Chemotherapy?
Unlike IV (intravenous)) or injection-based chemotherapies, oral chemotherapy is in the form of a pill or liquid and can be taken at home. Not all chemotherapy regimens are available in an oral version. Your medical oncologist will know if it’s available and if it may be a good option for you based on your diagnosis and other lifestyle factors. Even though you would be taking the medication at home instead of at a clinic, your Compass cancer provider team will still work closely with you and support you throughout the process.
How Does Oral Chemotherapy Work?
Oral chemo works the same as chemo given through an infusion. It can have slightly different side effects. Try to get familiar with the side effects for the chemotherapy you’ll be given and then track how you’re feeling while at home. It can be hard to remember everything that happens between visits with your oncologist so bring your notes on what happened after taking the oral chemo so that your doctor can talk to you about them. If you’re not sure whether your side effects are normal you can contact the INSERT NAME office 24/7 to speak to someone who will help you determine if you need to be seen immediately by a healthcare professional.
What Types of Cancer Have an Oral Chemo Available?
There are multiple chemotherapy drugs available to treat most types of cancer. The right one for each patient is selected based on specific traits of the cancer and other factors related to the patient’s overall health. In some cases, there is an oral chemotherapy available that may be a good option. Currently, the following types of cancer have one or more oral chemotherapy options:
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Ovarian cancer
- Small cell lung cancer
Through cancer research trials, more oral chemotherapy drugs will be made available over time and improvements on current drugs can be made.
Frequency and Dosing of Oral Chemotherapy
As with chemo that is given through infusion, normal cells, as well as cancerous cells, are affected. To keep the impact tolerable on your body, you might be instructed to take the chemotherapy in cycles spread over time.
Proper dosing is critical for oral chemo users. It's important to take your oral chemo medicine at the right time of day, exactly as prescribed by your medical oncologist. If oral chemo is not taken exactly as prescribed, it can severely impact how well the treatment works.
If you’re not able to keep the medication down due to nausea, be sure to tell your oncologist right away. This may change the dosing or the type of chemo that you can use.
What to Expect: Possible Side Effects
Because oral chemotherapy is just as strong and effective as IV or injection chemotherapy, it has similar side effects. In general, chemotherapy side effects are due to the fact that chemo drugs target healthy cells as well as cancerous cells. In particular, chemo attacks quick-growing cells like those in your hair follicles, digestive system, reproductive system, and mouth.
Some of the most common side effects of oral chemotherapy are:
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Skin changes, especially in the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
- Bruising easily
- Sores in mouth/bleeding gums.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Low blood count
Questions to Ask your Doctor about Oral Chemotherapy
As with all cancer treatments, it's important that you ask your cancer provider questions as you prepare to take oral chemotherapy. This way, you'll empower yourself to make the best decisions possible for your health. Here are some common questions to get you started:
- Why is oral chemotherapy the best option for me?
- Which drug has been prescribed for me?
- Does my financial responsibility change if I use oral chemo instead of IV chemo?
- How often will I have appointments with my cancer care team?
- How do I take the medicine? With meals or on an empty stomach? What date and time for each dose?
- How do I properly store, handle, and dispose of oral chemotherapy drugs?
- What happens if I'm late or miss taking a dosage?
- What side effects are possible, and how can I manage symptoms?
- Will my oral chemotherapy be combined with other cancer treatments?
Why Oral Chemotherapy?
Oral chemo is not the right choice for every cancer patient. For patients who live far away from cancer clinics, who may need to travel for extended periods of time, or who require the privacy of their own homes, oral chemotherapy can be a reasonable option.
Your cancer care providers at Compass Oncology can talk to you more about whether oral chemo is available for the type of treatment you need and if it's a good fit for you.