Interferon alpha is used to treat kidney cancer, malignant melanoma, multiple myeloma, and carcinoid tumors. Sometimes, it is also used to treat certain types of lymphoma and leukemia.
WHAT IS INTERFERON?
Interferon is a protein that is naturally produced in the body in very small quantities. It can also be made outside of the body and used as a drug. There are three main types: alpha, beta, and gamma.
This information is about interferon alpha.
HOW DOES INTERFERON WORK?
Interferon is administered to stimulate the body's immune system to fight some types of cancer. The exact way it works is not completely known yet. It is believed to effect the body in a variety of ways, some of which are:
- slow or stop cancer cells from dividing
- reduce the ability of cancer cells to protect themselves against the body's immune system
- strengthen the immune system.
WHAT DOES INTERFERON LOOK LIKE?
Interferon alpha is a clear, straw-colored liquid. It is supplied in a pre-diluted state in small glass vials, ready-filled syringes, and special injection pens.
HOW IS INTERFERON ADMINISTERED?
Interferon is injected below the skin (subcutaneously), usually in the thigh or abdomen. You or a family member of yours can learn how to give these injections so that you can continue the treatment from your home. Alternatively, the injections can be given by a nurse.
Your doctor or specialist nurse will explain how often you will need to be given the drug and how long the treatment cycle will be. This varies from person to person depending on the type of cancer they have.
You will be closely monitored by your doctors and nurses. You will probably be asked to give regular blood and/or urine samples. Your doctor or nurse will also take your temperature, pulse, and blood pressure. These tests help monitor the effects that interferon has on your body. If you are taking your injections from home, you may have to make regular outpatient visits to the hospital so the tests can be performed.
POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS OF INTERFERON
When you are given interferon injections, the amount of interferon in your blood goes up. This is why there may be side effects, although interferon is a naturally occurring substance. However, the side effects of interferon are not normally severe.
Each person reacts differently to cancer treatment. Some people have very few side effects, while others may develop more. The side effects described here will not affect everyone who is treated with interferon.
We outline the most commonly side effects, though we have left out the rarer ones. If you notice you develop any side effects that are not listed here, talk to your doctor or specialist nurse.
These include high fever, chills, and muscle and joint pain. They can start 2-3 hours after interferon alpha is given, though they do not last long.
After the first injection, these symptoms can be very severe. They normally lessen with subsequent injections. Some people find it useful to take their dose of interferon before going to bed, as this makes the side effects less visible. Your doctor can prescribe medicines to lessen these side effects.
Tiredness is a common side effect of interferon, especially toward the end of treatment and for a few weeks after the treatment has finished. It is important that you try to pace yourself and rest as much as you need to. Try to balance this with light exercise, such as taking short walks. If you feel drowsy, don't drive or operate heavy machinery.
LESS COMMON SIDE EFFECTS OF INTERFERON
NAUSEA, VOMITING, AND LOSS OF APPETITE
These side effects happen rarely. If necessary, your doctor can prescribe antiemetic drugs to prevent or greatly reduce your nausea and vomiting.
If your nausea remains uncontrolled or continues, tell your doctor, as they can prescribe other drugs that could work better. Some of these drugs can cause constipation. Tell your doctor or nurse if this is a problem.
SKIN IRRITATION AT THE INJECTION SITE
This can be helped by giving the interferon injections in different places. Sometimes, a more widespread rash can develop if you have an allergic reaction.
It is important to tell your doctor if you experience dizziness.
DEPRESSION AND MOOD SWINGS
Interferon can sometimes cause changes in your mood, such as depression, anxiety, restlessness, or difficulty sleeping. If you have changes in your mood while taking interferon, tell your doctor.
TINGLING IN THE HANDS AND FEET
Tell your doctor if this happens.
Your hair may thin out. However, interferon rarely causes people's hair to fall out entirely. Any effect on your hair will be temporary, and your hair will grow back once the treatment has concluded.
TEMPORARY REDUCTION IN THE NUMBER OF BLOOD CELLS
This can make you more prone to infection, bleeding, or bruising. It may also cause anemia (lack of red blood cells). It is important to let your doctor know about any signs of bleeding, bruising, or infection.
EFFECTS ON YOUR CIRCULATION
Interferon can change your heart rate or affect your blood pressure, although these will go back to normal once you stop taking the drug.
Interferon should be kept in the refrigerator. You can buy portable fridges for times when you are not at home.
Some drugs, including those bought over the counter in a store or pharmacy, may be harmful to you while you are taking interferon. Tell your doctor if you are taking any medicines, including over-the-counter drugs, complementary therapies, and herbal remedies.
Interferon can affect your ability to have children. It can affect women's menstrual cycle, and in men it may lower their sperm count. These effects may be temporary, though in some people they are permanent. It is important that you talk to your doctor before beginning treatment.
It is not advisable to become pregnant while taking interferon, as the drug can harm developing babies. It is important to use an effective method of contraception while you take this drug and for at least a couple of months afterward.
It is unknown whether interferon is present in semen or vaginal fluid. In order to protect your partner, it is safest to avoid having sex or use a barrier contraceptive device for about 48 hours after the chemotherapy.
There is a potential risk that interferon may be present in breast milk, and therefore women are recommended not to breast feed during the treatment and for a few months afterward.
If you are admitted to the hospital for any reason not related to cancer, it is important that you tell your doctors and nurses caring for you that you are being treated with interferon.