Living with cancer blog

Oral chemotherapy — not just any ordinary pill

By Sheryl M. Ness, R.N. November 3, 2012

Oral drugs that are prescribed for the treatment of cancer are called oral chemotherapy. Chemotherapy taken by mouth is just as strong as other forms of chemotherapy and work in a similar way.

It's important to realize that oral chemotherapy is not simply a pill, but a treatment that may have special instructions, precautions and side effects — much like chemotherapy given through a vein.

Before starting oral chemotherapy, discuss any concerns that you have with your treatment team. Here are a few important points to remember:

  • Pay close attention to the instructions on how and when to take your chemotherapy. Follow these instructions carefully and don't modify unless instructed.
  • Be aware of interactions with foods, supplements and other medications. Some supplements and vitamins can actually interfere with how well chemotherapy works.
  • Keep a medication calendar to record the days and times of the oral chemotherapy administration. Many times a medication calendar will come with your initial oral chemotherapy kit.
  • Many oral chemotherapy drugs require special storage in order to keep the drug effective and safe. Oral chemotherapy should be considered hazardous, so don't combine your oral chemotherapy pills with regular medications in a pill organizer — keep a separate organizer for your chemotherapy pills.
  • Oral chemotherapy pills should not be crushed, broken or chewed.

Oral chemotherapy can also have unique side effects that you may want to watch for, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Hand-foot syndrome — a skin reaction on palms of hands and soles of the feet (pain, swelling and redness)
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Skin rash
  • Low blood counts (watch for fever)
  • Hair loss and nail changes
  • Mouth sores

It's important that you tell your doctor or nurse about any side effects as soon as you notice them. Your dose may need to be adjusted to help you deal with the side effects.

Oral chemotherapies are becoming more and more common as a way of treating cancer. Partner with your cancer care team to be as informed as possible about your specific oral chemotherapy.

Please share experiences you have had with oral chemotherapy on the blog.


Sheryl M. Ness, R.N.

Nov. 03, 2012