While intravenous chemotherapy can be life-saving, it can also be inconvenient and potentially painful. The individual has to go to the hospital or a clinic for treatment and will need an IV port.
Oral chemotherapy can make a person feel as though they have more control over their treatment.
These drugs usually come in pill form, but they may also be available as liquids or tablets that dissolve under the tongue.
What is oral chemotherapy?
Oral chemotherapy is generally in the form of a pill.
Chemotherapy kills or slows the growth of cancer cells, prolonging the life of people with this disease. In some cases, it can eliminate cancer.
The administration of traditional chemotherapy is through a needle into a vein, or intravenously, and it usually takes place in a hospital or clinic.
Oral chemotherapy is chemotherapy that a person can take by mouth.
Some examples of oral chemotherapy medications include:
- Femara (letrozole)
- Odomzo (sonidegib)
- Jakafi (ruxolitinib)
- Zytiga (abiraterone)
- Hexalen (altretamine)
- Ibrance (palbociclib)
- Matulane (procarbazine)
- Sutent (sunitinib)
How it works and what to expect
Chemotherapy medications all work differently, and their dosages vary. The dosage will also depend on the type of cancer.
A doctor can provide a person with specific details on how they should take their medication.
The basics of what to expect include:
It is critical to take oral chemotherapy drugs according to the exact schedule that the doctor recommends.
The medication may be less effective if a person misses a pill, takes pills too close together, or takes certain other drugs alongside them. Incorrect dosing can also cause severe side effects.
People should obtain clear dosing instructions from their doctor, including what to do if they miss a pill or accidentally take two. Keeping a medication diary can help remind people to take their drugs.
Most people who undergo chemotherapy experience side effects. People can keep a log of all the side effects that they encounter and discuss them with a doctor.
We consider side effects in more detail later on in this article.
Infections and other illnesses can be more dangerous when a person is receiving chemotherapy. An infection could also be a sign of an adverse reaction.
People having chemotherapy should monitor their body temperature and contact a doctor if signs of illness occur, such as fever or flu-like symptoms.
People who become very ill or develop a high fever should go to the emergency room.
Oral chemotherapy pills may require storage at specific temperatures. In these cases, the air conditioning or heating in the home must work well enough to control the temperature.
It is vital not to keep pill bottles in the bathroom. Bathrooms can be very damp, which makes the medication break down more quickly.
It is also essential to keep pill bottles secure and out of the reach of children. The bottle should have clear labeling, so there is no chance of a person confusing it with another medication.
Bruising easily is a common side effect of oral chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is potent and will kill some healthy cells as well as cancer cells. Oral chemotherapy can be just as strong as intravenous chemotherapy.
People who undergo chemotherapy usually experience side effects, and some may become very sick.
Some common side effects of oral chemotherapy drugs include:
- hair loss
- skin changes
- sores in the mouth
- easy bruising
- feeling tired
- infection or flu-like symptoms
- nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
Side effects vary between people, and interactions between chemotherapy medications and other drugs may make them worse.
It is important to talk to a doctor about drugs, alcohol, and herbal supplements before beginning chemotherapy. It can be dangerous to drink alcohol when taking some types of oral chemotherapy.
Advantages of oral chemotherapy
Many people prefer oral chemotherapy to intravenous chemotherapy because it involves less frequent trips to the hospital or clinic. Oral chemotherapy allows a person to undergo treatment in the comfort of their own home.
The benefits of not having to leave home for treatment may include:
- fewer child care issues
- less disruption to daily activities
- less time off work
- more privacy
- not having to travel while feeling unwell
Some people dislike going to the clinic for treatment because it makes them feel sick or anxious.
Traditional chemotherapy is usually intravenous and requires a needle. For people who have a needle phobia, bruise easily, or have difficult-to-access veins, oral chemotherapy can be a less painful and stressful option.
Disadvantages of oral chemotherapy
A person may forget to take their oral chemotherapy medication.
Medical professionals administer traditional chemotherapy in a hospital-like setting to ensure that the individual gets the correct dose at the right time.
This location also allows for a quick response if the person has an adverse reaction to their treatment.
One disadvantage of oral chemotherapy is that a person may forget to take the medication or not take it correctly.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that only about 50 percent of people take their medications correctly.
According to a 2012 report, compliance with oral chemotherapy may decline with time. The results of studies suggest that the longer a person's course of treatment lasts, the more likely they are to stop taking their medication.
When a person does not take oral chemotherapy drugs precisely as a doctor recommends, the following problems may occur:
- treatment is less effective
- side effects are worse
- doses might be dangerously high due to taking pills too close together
Some chemotherapy pills are so potent that people need to wear gloves to handle them. People with young children must also be careful to store their drugs out of reach and dispose of any leftover pills safely.
Access to chemotherapy drugs can also be a problem. It is sometimes necessary to order the medication many days or weeks in advance, so people who do not keep up with the ordering process may miss doses.
Oral chemotherapy works in a similar way to traditional chemotherapy. It can be a great treatment option for people who find it easy to remember to order and take their medication. It can also offer relief from the stress and inconvenience of regular hospital trips.
Oral chemotherapy is not available for all types and stages of cancer. Even when it is available, it might not be the best choice for everyone. People can ask a doctor if oral treatment is an option for them and find out the details about its effectiveness and side effects.
An honest assessment of a person's lifestyle, needs, and ability to comply with treatment can help determine whether or not oral chemotherapy is suitable for them.