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Oral Chemotherapy:
What You Need to Know

Oral chemo is any drug you take by mouth to treat cancer. Chemo taken by mouth is as strong as other forms of chemo and works just as well. One of the best ways you can help fight the cancer is by taking your chemo exactly as your doctor or nurse tells you to. This information will help you be ready for oral chemo.

What is oral chemotherapy?

There are many types of chemotherapy (chemo). Oral chemo is any drug you are taking by mouth to treat cancer. Oral chemo is not put into the body with a needle. It’s a liquid, tablet, or capsule that you swallow.

Chemo taken by mouth is as strong as other forms of chemo and works just as well. One of the best ways you can help fight the cancer is by taking your chemo exactly the way your doctor or nurse tells you to.

Some chemo drugs are never taken by mouth because the stomach can’t absorb them. Others may cause harm when swallowed. In fact, most chemo drugs are put right into the blood through an IV (intravenous) line in a person’s vein. The chemo you take by mouth is easier because it can be taken at home. You don’t need to go into a hospital or clinic for every treatment.

Still, oral chemo drugs cost a lot. Many times you have to pay more out of pocket for them than IV drugs. If you have insurance, this might mean a higher co-pay. Make sure you know how much you’ll have to pay for each treatment.

Sometimes chemo is given in cycles. This cuts down on the harm to healthy cells and allows the drugs to kill more cancer cells. Your doctor will decide if you need to get your treatment every day, every week, every few weeks, or every month.

How do I take my oral chemo?

You should have clear instructions on how much and when to take your chemo. Take it just the way your doctor or nurse has told you to.

Make sure you know how to store and handle your chemo drugs. Sometimes caregivers who handle the drugs should use gloves. Some drugs have to be kept in the container or wrapper they came in. Also be sure you know how to get rid of unused doses. Some might have to be taken back to the pharmacy for safe disposal.

Be sure to tell your doctor or nurse about any problems you have taking your chemo. For instance, if you are throwing up or feel sick to your stomach, you may feel too sick to take your chemo. Or, you may not be able to keep your chemo down and may throw up your treatment dose. Your doctor needs to know about any problems so they can change your treatment plan, if needed.

Oral chemo doses are set up so that you’ll have constant levels of the drugs in your body to kill the cancer cells. Not taking your chemo as it needs to be taken can affect how well the treatment works, and it can even allow the cancer to grow.

Sometimes dose changes are needed, but don’t make any changes unless your doctor tells you to do so. Even after you start feeling better you may still have cancer cells in your body that must be kept under control with chemo.

Will I still need to see my doctor?

Even though you take oral chemo at home, you will still need to see your health care team. They will watch for changes in the cancer and see how you are doing with your chemo plan. Blood tests and scans will be done to see how your body and the cancer are responding to the chemo.

If you miss a dose or are late taking one, tell your doctor or nurse about it. Your doctor needs to know about this when looking at your response to the treatment. It may also help the doctor decide whether to change the dose or timing of the medicine.

What can I expect from oral chemo?

The side effects of any form of chemo vary from drug to drug and from person to person. Your doctor or nurse may not be able to predict what side effects you’ll have, but they can give you an idea of what to watch for.

Some oral chemo drugs can cause:

  • Stomach upset (nausea)
  • Throwing up (vomiting)
  • Loose or watery bowel movements (diarrhea)
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Skin changes
  • Low blood counts
  • Other side effects

Oral chemo is a systemic treatment, just like the IV form of chemo. This means it goes through your whole body to kill cancer cells wherever they might be. When chemo does this, it also harms healthy, normal cells and causes side effects.

Make sure you know what side effects to look for before you start chemo. Also ask if there are any side effects that you should call the doctor or nurse about right away.

Telling your doctor or nurse about side effects as soon as they happen can help make sure that the problem does not become dangerous. Your doctor may have to change the dose you’re taking or give you other drugs to help you feel better. If you are in doubt about a side effect and can’t get in touch with your doctor, don’t take your chemo until you get further advice.

Taking chemo at home gives you more freedom to carry on with your daily life without the trouble of frequent treatment visits. You may not be seeing your doctor and nurses very often, but be sure to call them with any questions or concerns you might have.

Are you ready to start your oral chemo?

Here are some things you may want to talk about with your doctor or nurse:

  • What’s the name of the chemo? Is there more than one name for the same drug?
  • How do I take it?
  • What if I have trouble swallowing and keeping down the pills? Can they be opened, broken, or crushed?
  • When should I take it?
  • Is it safe to take it with other drugs, food, vitamins, herbs, supplements, or other treatments I use?
  • What should I do if I miss a dose?
  • How should I store it?
  • What do you expect it to do?
  • What are the likely side effects? Who should I talk to if I have side effects?
  • How can I get in touch with you if I have trouble late at night or over the weekend?
  • How long will I need to take the oral chemo?
  • Will my insurance pay for oral chemo? If not, how much will it cost? How will I pay for it?
  • Will my other health problems stop me from being able to follow your instructions? Is there a chance my other health problems could make me forget to take my oral chemo?
  • Will you be calling me to find out how I’m doing with the chemo?
  • How often will you need to see me in the office?

Before starting oral chemo, discuss any concerns or questions you have with your doctor or nurse. Get answers to all of your questions about oral chemo before you start taking it.

The success of oral chemo depends a lot on you – it’s important to take the right dose of the drug, on schedule, exactly as you’ve been told. Your team is there to help you do this – they want you to succeed.

No matter who you are, we can help. Contact us anytime, day or night, for information and support. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.

Last Medical Review: 07/17/2014
Last Revised: 07/17/2014