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Common Chemotherapy Drugs for Cancer

written by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 5/28/2010

The American Cancer Society defines cancer as the out-of-control growth of cells in a part of the body. Chemotherapy involves the use of chemical agents that kill cancer cells to prevent the spread of cancer into other tissues. Doctors use several common chemotherapy drugs for cancer.

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    Carboplatin

    Carboplatin (Paraplatin or Paraplatin NovaPlus) is an alkalyting agent used to treat ovarian cancer and other types of cancer. This drug interferes with cancer cell growth, which results in a destruction of malignant cells. Although this product is labeled for use specifically in cases of ovarian cancer, it is helpful in treating cancers of the bladder, breast, head, neck, esophagus, testicles, lungs and brain. Caboplatin also has some use in treating retinoblastoma and malignant melanoma (skin cancer).

    Patients taking carboplatin need to take several precautions because of lowered immune system function. Do not have any vaccinations without prior approval by your oncologist, as this drug may reduce your body’s resistance to infection. Avoid people who have received an oral polio vaccine, as it’s possible a vaccinated person could pass the polio virus to you. Carboplatin also has the potential to reduce your white blood cell count and platelet count. Since platelets aid in normal blood clotting, watch for unusual bleeding or bruising. Signs of internal bleeding include blood in the urine, pinpoint red spots on the skin, black stools and blood in the stool. Use extra caution when shaving or using sharp objects.

    Because carboplatin destroys healthy cells along with malignant cells, it causes several side effects. One of the most common side effects is pain at the injection site. Other side effects include cough, fever and chills, hoarseness, side pain, lower back pain, chills, painful urination, skin rash, weakness, fatigue, itching and numbness in the fingers and toes.

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    Cyclophosphamide

    Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) treats cancers of the ovaries and breasts, along with leukemia. Although the FDA has not approved this drug for use in treating other disorders, off-label use includes the treatment of lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and several forms of vasculitis. After administration, the liver converts cyclophosphamide into phosphoramide and acrolein. These substances slow the growth of malignant cells by inhibiting DNA replication. This drug also acts as an immune system suppressant, which increases susceptibility to infections.

    Cyclophosphamide side effects include vomiting, hair loss, mouth sores, sterility, diarrhea and jaundice (yellowing of the skin). This drug also causes kidney failure and reduces the number of white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets produced in the bone marrow. The reduction in white blood cells increases susceptibility to infection. The reduction in platelets makes it difficult for the blood to clot properly. A lack of blood cells causes anemia and reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the tissues of the body. Another side effect of cyclophosphamide is bladder inflammation that causes lower abdominal pain, difficulty urinating and anemia.

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    Flurouracil

    Fluorouracil (5-FU) interferes with the use of pyrimidine within cells. This kills cancer cells as they divide. Because the drug cannot distinguish between malignant cells and normal cells, this results in low blood counts after chemo. Doctors use fluorouracil to treat liver cancer, colorectal cancer, gastrointestinal cancers, ovarian cancer, breast cancer and basal cell skin cancer.

    Chemocare.com reports that greater than 30 percent of patients receiving this drug experience mouth sores, diarrhea, poor appetite, nausea, watery eyes, vomiting, low blood counts, metallic taste in the mouth and sensitivity to light.

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    Methotrexate

    Methotrexate, marketed under the brand names Folex, Amethopterin and Mexate, treats cancers of the lungs, bone, lymph system, breast and blood. Administration techniques used with methotrexate include oral, intravenous and intrathecal dosing. Intracthecal administration involves injecting the drug directly into the spinal column. Contraindications for the use of methotrexate include bone marrow disorder, liver disease, liver cirrhosis, blood cell disorders and alcoholism. You should not use this drug if you breast-feed your child.

    Some medical conditions may make it necessary to receive a smaller dose of methotrexate than normal. These conditions include liver disease, pneumonia, lung disease, infections, stomach ulcers and receipt of radiation therapy for cancer. This drug causes birth defects in fetuses, so do not use this drug if you are pregnant. Side effects of methotrexate include dizziness, fatigue, nausea, headache, vomiting, bleeding of the gums, upset stomach and blurred vision. Some drugs interact with methotrexate and cause serious side effects. These drugs include hydroxychloroquine, steroids, phenytoin, theophylline and retinol.

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    Several common chemo drugs help doctors keep cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. These drugs include cisplatin, docetaxel, methotrexate, vinblastine and etoposide. Most of the drugs are available in injection or IV infusion form, but oral forms of some drugs make it possible for patients to take their chemo drugs at home.
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    Docetaxel

    Docetaxel, sold under the brand name Taxotere, is one of the chemotherapy drugs for cancer of the head, prostate, neck, stomach, breasts and lungs. Available in the form of an injection, this medication is used alone or in combination with other cancer medications. It inhibits the growth of cancerous cells, which shrinks tumors and prevents cancer from spreading. Side effects of Taxotere include nausea, diarrhea, exteme fatigue, muscle pain, nail changes, bone pain, joint pain, mouth sores, redness and swelling of the injection site, vomiting, constipation and changes in taste. Taxotere hair loss also occurs with the use of this drug.

    Some side effects cause serious complications. Contact a physician immediately if you experience numbness or burning of the hands and feet, unusual bleeding, nosebleeds, unusual bruising, weakness in the hands or feet, or blistering skin. In case of overdose, contact a poison control center or 911. Signs of overdose include signs of infection, skin irritation, mouth sores, throat sores, weakness and burning or tingling in the hands or feet.

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    Vinblastine

    Vinblastine treats cancers of the neck, testis and head, along with lymphoma. Administered as an injection, this drug is a vinca alkaloid that interferes with the growth of cancer cells. As cancer cells divide into two new cells, the vinblastine interferes with their division and causes cell death. Take several precautions before using this drug. Tell your doctor about any allergies to foods, medications, additives or dyes, as recommended by the American Cancer Society. You should also tell your physician if you have or have had liver disease, kidney stones, gout, kidney disease, diabetes, hypertension or infections.

    Vinblastine interacts with several drugs, including erythromycin, nefazodone, clarithromycin, itraconazole, indinavir, ketoconazole, amprenavir and ritonavir, so tell your doctor if you take any of these drugs. Because grapefruit juice and grapefruit may interfere with the amount of vinblastine in your blood, discuss your diet with a medical professional to determine if you need any dietary changes. Vinblastine side effects include fatigue, mouth sores, reduced white blood cell count, pain and redness at the infusion site, loss of appetite, vomiting, nausea, low red blood cell count, constipation, hair loss and low blood platelet count. Rare side effects of vinblastine include headache, jaw pain, allergic reactions, depression, bone paine, numbness and tingling of the extremities and infections.

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    Cisplatin

    Given intravenously, cisplatin treats cancers of the ovaries, bladder and testicles. Scientists classify this drug as a cytotoxic or antoneoplastic drug. It is also known as an alkylating agent, which means that it interferes with the cell division process in cancer cells. Because cisplatin is an irritant, it can irritate the vein during drug administration. Nurses and doctors who administer this drug receive extensive training because cisplatin can cause damage to the body tissues if it escapes from the vein. In some cases, cancer care team members infuse this drug into the abdominal cavity.

    The most common cisplatin side effects include kidney toxicity, low magnesium, low white blood cell count, low potassium, low red blood cell count, nausea and vomiting. Doctors give patients anti-nausea drugs before administration to lessen this side effect. Less common side effects of this drug include hearing loss, metallic taste in the mouth, reduced fertility, hair loss, loss of appetite, peripheral neuropathy and abnormal liver function test results.

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    Doxorubicin

    Doxorubiciin, available in IV form, treats breast cancer, multiple myeloma and lymphoma. Some oncologists use it to treat leukemia, bladder cancer, liver cancer, mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, sarcomas, neuroblastoma, stomach cancer, uterine cancer, testicular cancer and thyroid cancer. Scientists classify this drug as a vesicant, which causes blistering and tissue damage if it escapes from the vein during drug administration. Because of this risk, medical professionals who administer this drug receive extensive training. If the administration site swells or has redness during administration, alert your physician.

    Some side effects of doxorubicin occur very soon after administration. These side effects include nausea, pain at the administration site and vomiting. Common side effects that appear within two weeks of treatment include mouth sores, low white blood cell count, hair loss, low platelet count and low red blood cell count. The low blood counts increase the risk of anemia, bleeding and infection. Some doxorubicin side effects occur less frequently. These side effects include darkening of the nail beds, problems conceiving children, watery eyes, darkening of the skin at previous radiation sites and red, brown, pink or orange urine after receiving a dose of the treatment.

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    Etoposide

    Etoposide, marketed under the trade name of VP-16, interferes with cancer cell division, which kills malignant cells and shrinks tumors. This drug treats uterine cancer, Wilm’s tumor, rhabdomyosarcoma, Ewing’s sarcoma, lung cancer, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, stomach cancer, brain tumors and neuroblastoma. Doctors administer this drug as an intravenous infusion or in tablet form. Classified as an irritant, this drug causes tissue damage if it escapes from the vein during infusion.

    Common etoposide side effects include hair loss, chemotherapy-induced menopause, low white blood cell count, low platelet count, loss of fertility, nausea, low blood pressure and vomiting. Less common side effects of etoposide include mouth sores, poor appetite, skin reactions, diarrhea, metallic taste during drug administration, numbness in the extremities and infusion site inflammation. Some side effects require medical attention because of the potential for serious complications. Call your physician if you have unusual bleeding or bruising, extreme fatigue, black or tarry stools, yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice), pain and swelling at the infusion site, nausea that does not stop after taking anti-nausea medication, 4 to 6 episodes of diarrhea in a 24-hour period and 4 to 5 episodes of vomiting in a 24-hour period.

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