Cancer: Oral Anticancer Medicines

Cancer care often requires frequent visits to either a hospital or a care center. But with oral anticancer medicines, you can receive your cancer care at home. Oral treatment is medicine that is taken by mouth. The medicine may be in the form of a pill, capsule, or liquid.

Types of oral anticancer medicine

Several types of anticancer medicines can be taken by mouth. These include:

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses strong medicines to kill cancer cells. The medicines are made to attack and kill cells that grow quickly.

  • Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses medicines that target the parts of cancer cells that make them unlike normal cells. These medicines kill cancer cells without affecting most normal, healthy cells.

  • Hormone therapy. Some cancers use the body’s hormones to grow. Hormone therapy helps block or change hormones to stop or slow cancer growth.

  • Immunotherapy. These medicines help your body’s immune system find and kill cancer cells.

Which approach your healthcare team uses will depend on the type and stage of cancer you have. Be sure you know the name and type of the medicine you are getting.

Advantages of oral anticancer medicine

The advantages of oral treatment include:

  • More privacy. You can get treatment in your own home.

  • Fewer travel expenses. You don’t have to travel to a hospital or clinic.

  • Fewer disruptions to daily life. You don’t need to leave work or school or spend a long time at a treatment center. You can spend more time with your loved ones at home.

Fortunately, oral medicines can be used for many cancer types. And they are becoming more available. You may be able to choose if you would like this care option.

Some challenges to consider

If you choose oral anticancer medicines, it is important to be prepared. They have their advantages. But they can also pose unique challenges, including:

  • Schedule. It can be hard to maintain the demanding schedule needed for cancer care. Follow all instructions from your healthcare provider about how and when to take your medicine. Make sure you take the right dose at the right time. This helps keep the right level of medicine in your body. Don’t change your dose or schedule unless instructed by your provider. Tell your provider right away if you miss a dose. You can set small reminders around your living space to make sure you keep to your schedule. Set multiple alarms on your phone. Track the schedule using calendars.

  • Interacting poorly with other medicines or foods. Some oral anticancer medicines can’t be taken with other medicines or foods. This can include prescriptions or over-the-counter medicines. It can also mean everyday vitamins and foods. Ask your provider or pharmacist if you need to watch for any interactions.

  • Handling and storage. These medicines are powerful. While they may help you, they can be dangerous for anyone not getting cancer care. It is advised that oral anticancer medicines be stored apart from other medicines. Some may also need to be refrigerated. You may need to wear gloves when you handle the medicine. Other people may need to not touch the medicine or your body fluids while you are taking the medicine. Follow all instructions from your healthcare team.

  • Specific instructions. Some of these medicines may be taken with food. Others may require an empty stomach. Healthcare providers may also advise that you take this medicine in cycles or for a certain number of days. Be sure to get detailed instructions from your pharmacist. Following instructions is especially important for these medicines.

  • Side effects. The side effects you have will depend on your medicine, dose, schedule, type of cancer, and overall health. You may have side effects such as nausea, hair loss, and diarrhea or constipation. Some side effects are mild. But some can be more serious. Know what side effects to report to your healthcare providers. And know how to contact them.

  • Cost. Oral treatment for cancer can be expensive. Some insurance companies may not cover the medicine. Or you may need to use a specific pharmacy. Talk with your provider, insurance company, and pharmacist before starting treatment to get as much information as possible about the cost.

Ways to better manage these medicines

The challenges of using oral anticancer medicine may be overwhelming. But there are things you can do to make them easier to manage.

Questions for your healthcare provider

Asking questions is a great first step toward managing your expectations about these medicines. Consider asking:

  • When should I take it?

  • Is it safe to take with other medicines? What about vitamins or supplements?

  • What should I do if I miss a dose?

  • How should I store it?

  • What are the side effects? How can I prepare for them?

  • How can I get in touch with you outside of business hours?

  • How much will it cost?

Medicine safety at home

Ask your healthcare provider if you and your loved ones should take special safety steps when you are taking your oral anticancer medicines. These may include:

  • Handling your medicine with gloves. This is especially important if a caregiver is handling your medicines.

  • Having your caregiver wear 2 pairs of disposable gloves if they need to touch any of your body fluids. This includes pee, vomit, and stool.

  • Using a separate toilet or flushing twice after using the toilet.

  • Washing your hands well with soap and clean, running water after using the toilet.

  • Having your caregivers wash their hands right away if they come in contact with your body fluids.

  • Using condoms during oral, vaginal, and anal sex.

  • Using birth control to prevent pregnancy while on these medicines.

These can be hard safety steps to take. But they help keep you and your loved ones safe. Talk with your healthcare team about any concerns or questions you have.

© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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