There are many different types of cancer medications. These include alkylating agents, antimetabolites, and plant alkaloids.

Doctors can use cancer medications either on their own or in combination with other treatments, such as radiation therapy. The best type and combination will depend on several factors, including disease progression and the person’s overall health.

There can be side effects associated with cancer medications, including:

  • anemia
  • hair loss
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • difficulty breathing
  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Keep reading to learn more about some common cancer medications.

Vials of common cancer medications.Share on Pinterest
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Doctors categorize cancer medications based on how they work in the body.

The most common types of cancer medications include:

  • alkylating agents
  • nitrosoureas
  • antimetabolites
  • anti-tumor antibiotics
  • plant alkaloids
  • corticosteroids
  • miscellaneous drugs that do not fall into any of these categories

The sections below look at each of these drug types in more detail.

Alkylating agents

The National Cancer Institute states that alkylating agents were one of the earliest anticancer drugs and that they remain among the most common treatments today. They work by damaging the DNA of cancer cells to prevent them from dividing.

Some examples of alkylating agents include:

  • altretamine
  • bendamustine
  • busulfan
  • carboplatin
  • chlorambucil
  • cisplatin
  • cyclophosphamide
  • dacarbazine
  • ifosfamide
  • mechlorethamine
  • melphalan
  • oxaliplatin
  • temozolomide
  • thiotepa
  • trabectedin

Doctors primarily use alkylating agents to treat slow-growing cancers, as they are less effective against cells that divide quickly. For example, doctors might use these medications to treat:

Some side effects of alkylating agents may include:

Alkylating agents damage DNA in cancer cells, but they may also affect bone marrow cells, which can cause leukemia.

The risk of developing leukemia is small, but it increases with larger doses of alkylating agents. The risk of developing leukemia is highest around 5–10 years after treatment.


Nitrosoureas are a subcategory of alkylating agents that can cross the blood-brain barrier. This barrier protects the brain from many substances in the body. However, getting through the blood-brain barrier is important for treating some cancers, including brain cancer.

Nitrosoureas work by attaching themselves to DNA strands in cancer cells. This prevents them from dividing.

Some examples of nitrosoureas include:

  • carmustine
  • lomustine
  • streptozocin


Antimetabolites work by convincing cancer cells to consume them and then preventing their division into new cells.

Some examples of antimetabolites include:

  • azacitidine
  • 5-fluorouracil
  • 6-mercaptopurine
  • capecitabine
  • cladribine
  • clofarabine
  • floxuridine
  • fludarabine
  • gemcitabine
  • hydroxyurea
  • methotrexate

Antimetabolites are usually effective for treating:

Some side effects of antimetabolites include:

Anti-tumor antibiotics

Anti-tumor antibiotics are chemicals that interfere with enzymes that support growth in cancer cells.

Anthracyclines are a type of anti-tumor antibiotic. They bind with the DNA of fast-growing cancer cells to prevent them from reproducing.

Some examples of anthracyclines include:

  • daunorubicin
  • doxorubicin
  • doxorubicin liposomal
  • epirubicin
  • idarubicin
  • valrubicin

There are also several anti-tumor antibiotics that are not anthracyclines, including bleomycin, dactinomycin, and mitoxantrone.

Doctors might use anti-tumor antibiotics to treat:

One major side effect of anti-tumor antibiotics is an increased risk of heart damage.

This side effect is rare, but it can occur with high doses of the drug. For this reason, doctors typically limit how much of an anti-tumor antibiotic that someone can take.

Plant alkaloids

These are drugs that come from plants and have anti-tumor properties. They have different names depending on the enzyme that they act on.

Mitotic inhibitors, for example, are a class of plant alkaloids that prevent cancer cells from replicating or stop enzymes from creating proteins to support reproduction in cancer cells. Some examples of these drugs include taxanes and vinca alkaloids.

Topoisomerase inhibitors are a class of plant alkaloids that also have different names depending on which enzyme they work on.

Topoisomerase I inhibitors, for instance, interrupt DNA replication in cancer cells. One example is irinotecan. There are also topoisomerase II inhibitors, one example of which is etoposide.

Plant alkaloids are useful for treating several cancers, including:

  • leukemia
  • lung cancer
  • ovarian cancer
  • gastrointestinal cancer
  • colorectal cancer
  • pancreatic cancer

Some possible side effects include:


These are synthetic versions of naturally occurring hormones that can reduce inflammation and treat cancer.

Some corticosteroids that are useful in cancer treatment include prednisone, methylprednisolone, and dexamethasone. Their anti-inflammatory properties can reduce nausea, vomiting, and appetite problems from chemotherapy.

Some possible side effects of corticosteroids include:

Doctors may use various other drugs that work differently from those above to treat cancer.

Some examples of these medications include:

  • all-trans-retinoic acid
  • arsenic trioxide
  • asparaginase
  • eribulin
  • hydroxyurea
  • ixabepilone
  • mitotane
  • omacetaxine
  • pegaspargase
  • procarbazine
  • romidepsin
  • vorinostat

A person may want to ask a doctor some questions before beginning cancer treatment. These questions may include the following:

  • What treatment options are available?
  • What are the side effects of each treatment?
  • Are there any long-term side effects?
  • How long will treatment last?
  • Which side effects require immediate medical attention?

There are also several alternative therapies for cancer. The following sections look at some of these in more detail.

Targeted therapies

Cancer cells grow, divide, and spread through the body based on instructions they receive from proteins. Targeted therapies attack those proteins and prevent them from working effectively. They can help treat cancer in many ways, depending on the type of cancer.


The body’s immune system typically seeks and kills unusual cells around the body. Doctors use immunotherapy to help the body identify cancerous cells and attack them. This can cause side effects such as flu-like symptoms or skin reactions at the needle site.

Radiation therapy

This uses high doses of radiation to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. Doctors either use a machine to emit radiation from outside the body or place a radiation device inside the body. This option can also cause some side effects, including tiredness and skin irritation.


Doctors sometimes recommend surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. This is usually when the cancer is localized and has not spread to other areas of the body.

Cancer medications include a wide variety of drugs that use different mechanisms to fight the condition. There are benefits and drawbacks to each type of medication, and doctors can advise on the best option for each individual case.

Treatment might involve cancer medications on their own or cancer medications alongside other treatment options. The duration and intensity of the treatment will depend on the severity of the cancer and the person’s overall health.