Fluorouracil—often called 5-FU—is a therapy drug used to treat different types of cancer such cancers of the breast, intestines, skin, stomach, esophagus (throat), and pancreas.
HOW IS FLUOROURACIL ADMINISTERED?
5-FU is given in the chemotherapy day unit or during a hospital stay. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you.
Before the day of treatment, a nurse will take a blood sample from you to see if you are fit for chemotherapy.
You will also be able to see a doctor or nurse before having chemotherapy. They will ask you how you have been feeling. If the results of your blood test are good on the day of your treatment, the pharmacist will prepare your chemotherapy. Your nurse will give you medication for nausea and, sometimes, steroids administered intravenously. Chemotherapy drugs may be given in the following ways:
- Through a thin tube (line) inserted into a vein in the arm or hand by a nurse
- Through a tube that goes below the skin of your chest to a nearby vein (central line)
- Through a thin tube that is placed in a vein of the arm and goes up through a vein toward the chest (PICC)
Your cancer nurse may give you 5-FU as an injection or a drip (influsion). They usually run the drip through a pump, giving you the treatment over a set time. Sometimes, patients receive 5-FU over a few days in continuous infusion. This is normally given through a small pump connected to your line. You can carry the pump on your belt or in a bag. The pump can be taken home with you. The nurses will tell you how to take care of it.
5-FU can also be taken as a cream to treat some types of skin cancer. If you take it in cream form, your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist will tell you more about it. This information is mainly about 5-FU that is taken through injection.
YOUR CHEMOTHERAPY CYCLE
You will have chemotherapy as part of a course or cycle, consisting of several treatment sessions and lasting several months. This will depend on the type of cancer you have. Your doctor or nurse will tell you more about this and how many cycles you are likely to have.
POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS OF 5-FU
You may experience some of the side effects mentioned here, though it is rare for a patient to have all of them. If you receive other chemotherapy drugs, you may have other side effects that are not mentioned here. Always inform your doctor of the effects you experience.
Your doctor can prescribe medication to help control some of the side effects. It is very important to take the medication exactly as your doctor says for it to have the highest chance of working well. Your nurse will advise you on managing the side effects. After treatment, the side effects start to get better.
RISK OF INFECTION
5-FU may lower the number of white blood cells in your blood. This will make you more susceptible to infection. Your nurse can tell you when you might have the lowest levels of these cells. When the number of white blood cells is low, this is called neutropenia.
Contact your hospital immediately if any of the following happens:
your temperature goes above 38 ° C
you suddenly feel unwell, even if your temperature is normal.
You have symptoms of infection, which may include sore throat, coughing, or the need to urinate frequently.
The number of white blood cells normally increases gradually, returning to normal before your next chemotherapy session. You will have a blood test before your next chemotherapy. If your white blood cells are still low, your doctor may postpone the treatment for a short period of time.
BRUISING AND BLEEDING
5-FU may lower the number of platelets in your blood. Platelets are cells that help the blood to clot. Tell your doctor if you have any unexplained bleeding or bruising. This includes nosebleeds, bleeding gums, blood spots, or skin eruptions (rashes). Some people may require additional platelets.
5-FU may lower the number of red blood cells in your blood. Red blood cells transport oxygen throughout the body. If you have a low number of red blood cells, you may be tired and short of breath. Tell your doctor or nurse if you feel like this. If you are very anemic, it's possible you will require a blood transfusion.
This can happen on the first few days after chemotherapy. Your doctor will prescribe you antiemetic drugs to help prevent or control your nausea. It is easier to prevent nausea than it is to treat it once it has begun.
If you still have nausea or are vomiting, get in touch with the hospital as soon as possible. They can give you advice and change your medication to one that works better.
Your doctor can prescribe medicines to control diarrhea. Let them know if your diarrhea is severe or if it doesn't get better. Make sure you drink at least two liters of fluids each day if you have diarrhea.
LOSS OF APPETITE
You may lose your appetite during the treatment. Try to eat in small quantities and have frequent meals. Don't worry if you don't eat much for a day or two. If your appetite doesn't get any better after a few days, tell your nurse or dietitian. They can give you nutritional supplements or good-tasting meal-replacement drinks.
SORENESS OF THE MOUTH
You may have a sore mouth or mouth ulcers, which could make you more prone to getting a mouth infection. Lightly brush your teeth and/or dentures in the morning and night and after meals. Use a soft-bristle toothbrush. Your nurse might ask you to rinse your mouth out regularly or use mouthwash. It is important that you follow all the instructions you are given and that you drink a lot of fluids.
Tell your nurse or doctor if you have any mouth problems. They can prescribe you drugs to prevent or treat infections of the mouth and to treat any kind of pain.
CHANGES IN TASTE
You may get a bitter or metallic taste in your mouth or find that food tastes different. This should go away when your treatment is over. Unless you have pain or mouth ulcers, try to use herbs and spices or strong-tasting sauces to give your food more flavor. Sucking on candy can sometimes help bitter or metallic tastes go away. Your nurse can give you further advice on this.
Feeling very tired is a common side effect. Fatigue is often worst toward the end of treatment and for a few months after the treatment has finished. Try to pace yourself and rest as much as you need to. Help balance this with a bit of light exercise, such as short walks. If you feel drowsy, don't drive or operate heavy machinery.
TINGLING IN THE HANDS OR FEET
These symptoms are caused by the effect of 5-FU on the nerves. It is called peripheral neuropathy. It may also be hard for you to press buttons and it can make other tasks more uncomfortable. You may also feel a certain degree of pain at your nerve endings.
Tell your doctor if you have these symptoms. It is sometimes necessary to lower the drug dose. The symptoms normally get better slowly once the treatment is over, though in some people they never go away. Talk to your doctor if you are worried about this.
Usually, people lose all of their hair. Also, the eyelashes, eyebrows, and other parts of the body may lose their hair. This normally starts after your first or second cycle of chemotherapy. It is almost always temporary, and the hair will continue to grow after you finish your chemotherapy. Until the time when you hair grows back, it is important to cover your head so as to protect the scalp while it is exposed to the sun's rays. Your nurse can give you advice on how to cope with losing your hair.
CHANGES IN THE HEART
5-FU can affect the way the heart functions. You may have tests done before, during, and after your treatment to see how your heart is working.
If you have pain or pressure in your chest, feel out of breath, or notice changes in your heart rate at any time during or after treatment, let your doctor know immediately. These symptoms could be caused by other conditions, but it important to have them looked at by a doctor.
LESS COMMON SIDE EFFECTS OF 5-FU
You may feel soreness in your eyes and your eyes may become more sensitive to light. Your doctor can prescribe eye drops to help this. If your eyes become red and inflamed (conjunctivitis), tell your doctor, as you may need antibiotic drops.
Chemotherapy can affect your skin. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what you can expect. If you feel your skin is dry, try to use a fragrance-free moisturizing cream every day.
During the treatment and for several months after it, you will be more sensitive to the sun and your skin may burn more easily than usual. You can still go out in the sun, though you need to use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and cover yourself with clothing and a hat.
Your skin may darken. It will return to its normal color after the treatment is finished. Always tell your doctor or nurse about any change to your skin. They can advise you and prescribe creams or medication that may help. Normally, changes in the skin are temporary and get better as soon as the treatment is over.
MORE INFORMATION ABOUT 5-FU
BLOOD CLOT RISK
Cancer and chemotherapy increase the chances of a blood (thrombosis). The symptoms include pain, reddening or swelling in a leg, difficulty breathing, and pain in the chest. Get in touch with your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms.
Some medicines can interact with chemotherapy or be harmful if they are taken alongside chemotherapy. This includes medications that can be purchased in a store or pharmacy. Tell your doctor the medicines you are taking, including over-the-counter medications, complementary therapies, and herbal medicines.
5-FU may affect your fertility. If this worries you, you can talk to your doctor before beginning treatment.
Your doctor will advise you not to become pregnant during the treatment. This is because the drugs can harm developing babies. It is important to use contraception during chemotherapy and for a few months after the treatment ends.
If you have sex within the first few days after chemotherapy, it is necessary to use a condom. This is to protect your partner in case there is chemotherapy in semen or vaginal fluid.
Women are recommended not to breastfeed during treatment and for a few months after chemotherapy has concluded. This is in case the chemotherapy enters their breast milk.
MEDICAL AND DENTAL TREATMENT
If you have to go to the hospital for whatever reason other than cancer, always tell the doctors and nurses that you are having chemotherapy.
Talk to your cancer doctor or nurse if you think you need dental treatment. Always let your dentist know that you are having chemotherapy.