Oral Chemotherapy - What You Need to Know

Patient Education Facilitator
Thursday, June 15, 2017 - 2:08pm

In recent years, oral chemotherapy (chemo)—cancer medication that is taken by mouth instead of through a needle—has become an option for some people undergoing cancer treatment. While oral chemo can be just as effective as infusion, and likely more convenient, it can present challenges. For one thing, it can be very expensive, so be sure to check with your health insurance company to see if it is covered. This article, however, will focus on the importance of understanding how to take and handle these extremely powerful drugs.

Before you begin oral chemo, discuss the process with your healthcare provider or clinical pharmacist. Here is what you should know:

  • the generic and brand names of your medication
  • the basics of how it works
  • when and how to take it, and what to do if you miss a dose
  • precautions (what you need to tell your doctor before you begin)
  • any foods or medications that may interfere with the effectiveness of the chemo
  • side effects and how to manage them
  • when to call the doctor

Safe Handling

  • You are the only one who should come into contact with this medication. If a caregiver is assisting you, they should wear latex gloves.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after taking the medicine.
  • Never break, crush, chew, or open your tablets or capsules unless otherwise instructed—most need be taken whole.
  • Store the medicine properly.
    • Find a place in your home to store your oral chemotherapy that is separate from your other prescription and nonprescription medicines.
    • Store your medication at room temperature away from direct sunlight, excessive heat, cold, humidity, and sources of water.
    • Read the medication package and any attached paperwork to see if there are additional storage requirements for your medication, such as refrigeration.
    • Keep it in the original container, separate from other medications.
    • Keep it out of the reach of children and pets.
  • Chemotherapy can stay in the body up to several days after each dose. During this time, it can be present in bodily fluids such as urine or vomit. This requires some extra safeguards.
    • Caretakers should avoid contact with the patient’s bodily fluids. Wear gloves when cleaning the toilet, soiled sheets, or any bodily fluids.
    • Always wash your hands after coming in contact with bodily fluids.
    • If possible, caregivers should consider using a different toilet than the patient. However, it is safe to use the same toilet as long it is kept clean.
  • Return wet, unused, or expired chemo medications to the pharmacist or hospital for disposal. 

Keeping Track

Taking your medicine at the same time every day is important. Try writing down each dose on the calendar and marking it off each day, or setting an alarm on your phone. Keep track of how the medicine makes you feel and any side effects you experience. Tell your Roswell Park care team so that they can work with you to minimize the side effects of your medications.

Medications used to treat cancer have a major impact on your body, regardless of whether they are given by intravenous infusion or taken by mouth.  For these medications to be effective, they must be taken properly and handled safely.