Oral Chemotherapy:
What You Need to Know

There are many types of chemotherapy (KEY-mo-THAIR-uh-pee). It’s often called just chemo. Chemo is the use of strong drugs to kill cancer. Oral chemo is any drug you take by mouth to treat cancer. Oral chemo is not given to you with a needle. It’s a liquid or pill that you swallow.

Chemo you swallow is as strong as other forms of chemo and works just as well. You take oral chemo at home. You don’t need to go to a hospital or clinic for every treatment. One of the best ways you can help fight the cancer is by taking your oral chemo just like your doctor or nurse tells you to.

But oral chemo drugs cost a lot. Many times you have to pay more of your own money for them than you pay for chemo that’s given with a needle in the hospital or clinic. If you have health insurance, this might mean a higher co-pay. Make sure you know how much you’ll have to pay for each treatment.

How do I take my oral chemo?

You should have clear instructions on how much and when to take your chemo. Sometimes chemo is given in rounds or cycles. This cuts down on the harm to healthy cells and allows the chemo to kill more cancer cells. Your doctor will talk to you about when you will need to take your chemo. Be sure to take it just the way your doctor or nurse has told you.

Make sure you know how to deal with your chemo drugs. Sometimes you need to wear gloves when touching the drugs. Some drugs have to be kept in the bottle or box they came in. Also be sure you know how to get rid of doses when you don’t need them anymore. Some might have to be taken back to the drug store to be thrown away safely.

Be sure to tell your doctor or nurse about any problems you have taking your chemo. For instance, if you’re 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 it up. 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 the same level of drug stays in your body to kill the cancer cells. Not taking your chemo the right way can affect how well it works, and may 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 the chemo must fight.

Will I still need to see my doctor?

Even though you take oral chemo at home, you will still need to see your cancer 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 doing with the chemo.

If you miss a dose or are late taking one, tell your doctor or nurse about it. They need to know about this when deciding if treatment is working. It may also help the doctor decide whether to change how much of the medicine you take or when you take it.

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 cancer care team may not be able to tell you what side effects you’ll have, but they can tell you what to watch for.

Some oral chemo drugs can cause things like:

  • Stomach upset (nausea)
  • Throwing up (vomiting)
  • Loose or watery poop (diarrhea)
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Skin changes
  • Low blood counts

Oral chemo goes through your whole body to kill cancer cells wherever they might be. But it also harms healthy, normal cells. This 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 cancer care team about right away.

Telling your team about side effects as soon as they happen can help make sure that they don’t get too bad. Your doctor may have to change how much you take or give you other drugs to help you feel better. If you aren’t sure about a side effect and can’t reach your doctor, don’t take your chemo until you talk to someone on your cancer care team.

Taking chemo at home gives you more freedom without having a lot of 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 have.

Are you ready to start your oral chemo?

Here are some things you may want to talk to your cancer care team about:

  • 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 or 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? What should I do if I have side effects?
  • How can I get in touch with you if I have trouble late at night or on 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 take the chemo the way I should? 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 person?

Before starting oral chemo, talk to your doctor or nurse about any concerns or questions you have. 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, at the right time, just as you’ve been told. Your cancer care team is there to help you do this.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: April 1, 2016 Last Revised: April 1, 2016

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