A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. The good news is that advances in cancer treatment have made it possible for millions of cancer patients to lead healthy lives. In fact, the risk of dying from cancer in the United States has decreased over the past 28 years, according to annual statistics reported by the American Cancer Society.
Today, there are oral medications used to treat various cancers. These medications may be chemotherapy in a pill form or other oral therapies that target cancer cell growth. They’re as effective at destroying cancer cells as the most common method of chemotherapy administered in a clinic or infusion center. Their main difference is that patients can swallow the medication and take it from the comfort of their homes. But keep in mind that these oral medications are powerful and may require special precautions when taken at home.
If you have discussed oral chemotherapy or other oral therapies as a treatment option with your oncologist, there are things you should know to help you prepare for treatment. Here are seven common questions and answers to boost your knowledge and help you make better choices for your health:
Why oral treatment versus intravenous (IV) chemotherapy?
Whether oral medications are right for you depends on the type of cancer, your physician’s advice, and your personal preference. If you’re a candidate for oral medication to treat your cancer, there are some significant advantages. Those include more flexibility, less travel time, and not having to miss work due to medical appointments. If you live in a rural area, you may find it beneficial not to have to drive long distances to get treatment. Oral therapy also eliminates the need for needles, which some may consider uncomfortable.
How do I take the medication?
You should take your medication exactly as prescribed by your doctor. Do not break or crush the pills. Read all the instructions on the medication bottle to understand if you need to take it with food or on an empty stomach. And if someone else is helping you take your medicine, they shouldn't touch the tablets. Oral anticancer drugs are strong enough to kill cancer cells, so they can be hazardous to others if exposed. Instead, have your caregiver empty the pills into the bottle lid or wear disposable gloves. Under no circumstances should pregnant women come in contact with this medication. Wash your hands with soap and water after taking your medication.
Is there a particular way to handle the medication to protect me and others?
Oral therapies to treat cancer aren’t your typical over-the-counter or prescription medicine. They’re as strong as IV chemotherapy. That means that both pharmacists and caregivers may have to follow special handling instructions. In some cases, you may receive your medication in the mail from a specialty pharmacy. Drugs can remain in your body for several days after you take them. As a precaution, caregivers should wear disposable gloves if they come in contact with vomit, urine, or stool. Wash soiled bedsheets or clothes separately from other clothing. Be sure to wash your hands after cleaning or touching any item exposed to body fluids.
When should I use or take the medication?
It’s essential to follow the instructions from your prescribing provider. Make sure your pharmacist is aware of this new medication. This information can help them determine if the new medication interacts with any of your existing medications. Try taking your medication at the same time each day. You should know both its generic and brand name. Inform other doctors, dentists, and health care providers that you are taking pills for your cancer. Check with your doctor or pharmacist before beginning a new drug. Call your health care team for additional instructions if you miss a dose or vomit after taking it.
How should I store the medication?
Keep your medication in its original container and away from heat, sunlight, children, and pets. Do not store your tablets or capsules in the same pillbox as your other medications. Keeping the medication in a damp environment isn’t ideal, either. That means the bathroom medicine cabinet isn’t the best place to store it. Read the medication label to determine if refrigeration is needed. If the medication needs to be refrigerated, make sure it’s stored in a sealed plastic bag or container and away from food.
What are the possible side effects? What should I do if I have side effects?
Oral medications can cause the same side effects as intravenous medications used to treat cancer. These include fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, skin rashes, and hair loss. Some cancer treatments can also affect your ability to have children in the future. Talk to your cancer care team before starting a new therapy if that's a concern. Because everyone reacts differently to cancer treatment, taking symptoms seriously is essential. Call your doctor immediately if you experience bleeding, uncontrolled diarrhea, or vomiting. A 100.4 or higher fever and painful mouth sores are also concerning symptoms. Notify your doctor if you stop taking your medication. Ask your doctor or cancer care team if you need to take additional medicines before each dose to help reduce side effects.
What if I have extra pills at the end of my treatment?
You should be careful in the disposal of leftover medication. Doctors usually prescribe the exact dosage and amount, so you shouldn't have any extra pills at the end of the treatment. If you change or stop taking your oral medications, contact your pharmacy or doctor’s office for disposal instructions. In general, don’t throw these medications in the trash, the toilet, or the sink. Remember, these medications can be hazardous to others who may come in contact with them.
The takeaway: Oral drugs are as effective as IV chemotherapy and other intravenous cancer medications. These powerful medications should be taken as instructed by your oncologist and handled cautiously. Refill your medication ahead of time, and plan for travel and weekends. Notify your doctor’s office when you start treatment and discuss any concerns. The length of treatment varies depending on the patient and type of cancer.