Cancer Therapy, Supportive
Supportive cancer therapy is the use of medicines to counteract unwanted effects of cancer treatment.
Along with their beneficial effects, many cancer treatments produce uncomfortable and sometimes harmful side effects. For example, cancer drugs may cause nausea or vomiting. They may also destroy red or white blood cells, resulting in a low blood count. Fortunately, many of these side effects can be relieved with other medicines.
Different kinds of drugs are used for different purposes in supportive cancer therapy. To relieve nausea and vomiting, a physician may prescribe dolasetron (Anzemet), granisetron (Kytril) or ondansetron (Zofran). Drugs called colony stimulating factors are used to help the bone marrow make new white blood cells to replace those destroyed by cancer treatment. Examples of colony stimulating factors are filgrastim (Neupogen) and sargramostim (Leukine). Another type of drug, epoetin (Epogen, Procrit), stimulates the bone marrow to make new red blood cells. It is a synthetically made version of human erythropoietin that is made naturally in the body and has the same effect on bone marrow.
Some physicians who treat cancer recommend that their patients use marijuana to relieve nausea and vomiting. This practice is controversial for several reasons. Using marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, is illegal in most states. Also, most of the evidence that marijuana effectively relieves nausea and vomiting comes from reports of people who have used it, not from carefully designed scientific studies. An oral medication that contains one of the active ingredients of marijuana is available with a physician's prescription and sometimes is used to treat nausea and vomiting in patients undergoing cancer treatment. However, the drug, dronabinol (Marinol), takes longer to work than smoked marijuana and may be difficult for patients with nausea and vomiting to swallow and keep down.
In 1997, the National Institutes of Health issued a report calling for more research into medical uses of marijuana. The panel of experts who wrote the report also recommended that researchers investigate other ways of getting the active ingredients of marijuana into the body, such as nasal sprays, skin patches and inhalers.
Patients who want to use marijuana to relieve side effects of cancer treatment should talk to their physicians and should carefully consider the benefits and risks, both medical and legal.
The recommended dosage depends on the type of supportive cancer therapy. Check with the physician who prescribed the drug or the pharmacist who filled the prescription for the correct dosage.
Dolasetron, granisetron and ondansetron
The most common minor side effects are headache, dizziness or lightheadedness, drowsiness, dry mouth, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain or stomach cramps and unusual tiredness or weakness. These problems usually do not require medical treatment.
Check with a physician as soon as possible if fever occurs after taking granisetron.
If any of these symptoms occur after taking ondansetron, check with a physician immediately:
- breathing problems or wheezing
- chest pain or tightness in chest
- skin rash, hives or itching
Colony stimulating factors
As this medicine starts to work, it may cause mild pain in the lower back or hips. This is nothing to worry about, and it will usually go away within a few days. If the pain is too uncomfortable, the physician may prescribe
Other possible side effects include headache, joint or muscle pain, and skin rash or itching. These side effects usually go away as the body adjusts to the medicine and do not need medical treatment. If they continue or they interfere with normal activities, check with a physician.
This medicine may cause flu-like symptoms, such as muscle aches, bone pain, fever, chills, shivering, and sweating, within a few hours after it is taken. These symptoms usually go away within 12 hours. If they do not, or if they are troubling, check with a physician. Other possible side effects that do not need medical attention are diarrhea, nausea or vomiting, and tiredness or weakness.
Certain side effects should be brought to a physician's attention as soon as possible. These include headache, vision problems, increased blood pressure, fast heartbeat, weight gain, and swelling of the face, fingers, lower legs, ankles or feet.
Anyone who has chest pain or seizures after taking epoetin should check with a physician immediately.
Side effects such as dizziness, drowsiness, confusion and clumsiness or unsteadiness usually do not need medical attention unless they are long-lasting or they interfere with normal activities.
Other side effects or signs of overdose should have immediate medical attention. These include:
- fast or pounding heartbeat
- trouble urinating
- red eyes
- slurred speech
- mood changes, including depression, nervousness or anxiety
- changes in sight, smell, taste, touch or hearing
- a sense that time is speeding up or slowing down
General precautions for all types of supportive cancer therapy
Anyone who previously has had unusual reactions to drugs used in supportive cancer therapy should let his or her physician know before taking the drugs again. The physician should also be told about any allergies to foods, dyes, preservatives, or other substances.
General advice on side effects for all types of supportive cancer therapy
Other side effects are possible with any type of supportive cancer therapy. Anyone who has unusual symptoms during or after treatment with these drugs should get in touch with his or her physician.
Anyone who has supportive cancer therapy should let the physician know all other medicines he or she is taking. Some combinations of drugs may interact, which may increase or decrease the effects of one or both drugs or may increase the risk of side effects. Ask the physician whether the possible interactions can interfere with drug therapy or cause harmful effects.
"Marijuana as Medicine: How Strong is the Science?" Consumer Reports 62 (May 1997): 62.
Morris, Kelly. "The Cannabis Remedy—Wonder Worker or Evil Weed?" The Lancet 350 (20 Dec.1997): 1828.
Bone marrow—Soft tissue that fills the hollow centers of bones. Blood cells and platelets (diskshaped bodies in the blood that are important in clotting) are produced in the bone marrow.
Hallucination—A false or distorted perception of objects, sounds, or events that seems real. Hallucinations usually result from drugs or mental disorders.
Immune system—The body's natural defenses against disease and infection.
Inflammation—Pain, redness, swelling, and heat that usually develop in response to injury or illness.
Schizophrenia—A severe mental disorder in which people lose touch with reality and may have illogical thoughts, delusions, hallucinations, behavioral problems and other disturbances.
Sickle cell anemia—An inherited disorder in which red blood cells contain an abnormal form of hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen. The abnormal form of hemoglobin causes the red cells to become sickle- or crescent-shaped. The misshapen cells may clog blood vessels, preventing oxygen from reaching tissues and leading to pain, blood clots and other problems. Sickle cell anemia is most common in people of African descent and in people from Italy, Greece, India, and the Middle East.
Table Of Contents
- Recommended dosage
- Dolasetron, granisetron and ondansetron
- Colony stimulating factors
- General precautions for all types of supportive cancer therapy
- General advice on side effects for all types of supportive cancer therapy
- KEY TERMS