While many people picture hospitals and IVs when they think of chemotherapy, there is another treatment option that does not require long hospital sessions: oral chemotherapy. Like traditional chemotherapy, oral chemotherapy is used to destroy cancer cells, but it does so through a tablet you swallow.
Oral chemotherapy is just as effective as the traditional version, and has the benefit of allowing patients to undergo treatment at home, rather than repeated trips to a hospital or clinic. It has become popular and is favored by patients.
Because of this, it is becoming an increasingly common treatment method. Oral chemotherapy is also less painful, since patients do not have to be hooked up to an IV, which sometimes can be uncomfortable or cause anxiety.
However, oral chemotherapy puts the burden of remembering when and how to take the medication onto the patient. It is also not yet available for all chemotherapy drugs. Oral chemotherapy tablets typically come with strict instructions on how and when to take them — occasionally more than once a day — and certain foods and drinks to avoid when taking them. Certain vitamins and supplements will need to be avoided to ensure they do not interfere with the medication’s effectiveness.
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Oral chemotherapy pills should be considered hazardous, so it’s often recommended you wear gloves to handle them. Some drugs may need to be kept in the bottle or box they came in to keep them effective or safe. Patients should not combine them with other pills or vitamins in a pill organizer, and are encouraged to keep a medication calendar to record the days and times the doses were taken.
Oral chemotherapy can be expensive and requires approval by your health insurance plan. Make sure you understand your health benefits before making a choice.
Common side effects of oral chemotherapy include fatigue, weakness, nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, diarrhea, weight loss, hair loss, bleeding gums, skin changes, low blood count, loss of menstrual periods and compromised immune system.
These are comparable to the side effects of traditional chemotherapy, as both forms of treatment not only kill cancer cells, but healthy cells as well. Talk to your physician about your side effects, as the doctor may be able to adjust your dosage or change medications to make them more manageable.
Depending on the type and severity of cancer, oral chemo can be combined with radiation therapy, surgery or immunotherapy. If you have been diagnosed with cancer, talk with your physician to see if oral chemotherapy might be a treatment option.
Dr. Scott Pierce is with KentuckyOne Health Hematology and Oncology.