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Interferon alpha is used to treat cancer of the kidney|, malignant melanoma|, multiple myeloma| and carcinoid tumours. It is also sometimes used to treat certain types of lymphoma| and leukaemia|.
You should ideally read this information with our general information about your type of cancer|.
Interferon is a protein that occurs naturally in the body in very small amounts. It can also be made outside the body and used as a drug. There are three main types: alpha, beta and gamma.
This information describes interferon alpha.
Interferon is given to stimulate the body’s immune system to fight some types of cancer. The exact way in which it works is not fully understood. It's thought to have a variety of effects on the body. It may do one or more of the following:
reduce the ability of the cancer cells to protect themselves from the immune system
Interferon alpha is a clear, straw-coloured liquid. It’s supplied ready-diluted in small glass vials (bottles), pre-filled syringes and special injection pens.
Interferon is given as an injection just under the skin (subcutaneously), usually in the thigh or abdomen. You, a relative or carer can be taught how to give these injections so you can continue the treatment at home. Alternatively, the injections may be given by a district nurse or GP practice nurse.
A variety of pre-filled syringes are available. It can be helpful to discuss the most suitable treatment with your doctor or nurse.
Your doctor or specialist nurse will explain how often you will have the drug and how long the treatment course will last. This varies from person to person, depending on their type of cancer.
The doctors and nurses looking after you will monitor you closely during your treatment. You will probably be asked to give regular samples of your blood and/or urine. They will also take your temperature, pulse and blood pressure. These tests help monitor the effects of the interferon on your body. If you're having your injections at home, you may need to attend regular outpatient appointments at your hospital so that the tests can be carried out.
When you're given interferon injections, the amount of interferon in your body becomes much higher than normal. This is why you may have side effects even though interferon is a naturally occurring substance. However, the side effects of interferon are not usually severe.
Each person’s reaction to cancer treatment is different. Some people have very few side effects while others may experience more. The side effects described here won't affect everyone having treatment with interferon.
We've outlined the most common side effects but haven't included those that are rare and therefore unlikely to affect you. If you notice any effects that aren't listed here, discuss them with your doctor or specialist nurse.
These include a high temperature, chills, and muscle and joint pains. They may start 2-3 hours after interferon alpha is given, but they don't last long.
After the first injection, these symptoms may be quite severe. They usually lessen with further injections. Some people find it helpful to have their interferon before going to bed at night so that the side effects are less noticeable. Your doctor may prescribe medicine to reduce these side effects.
Feeling tired| is a common side effect of interferon, especially towards the end of treatment and for some weeks after it’s over. It’s important to try to pace yourself and get as much rest as you need. Try to balance this with taking some gentle exercise, such as short walks, which will help. If tiredness is making you feel sleepy, don’t drive or operate machinery.
These side effects are rare. If needed, your doctor can prescribe anti-sickness (anti-emetic)| drugs to prevent, or greatly reduce, nausea and vomiting.
If the sickness isn't controlled, or if it continues, tell your doctor, who can prescribe other anti-sickness drugs that may work better for you. Some anti-sickness drugs can cause constipation. Let your doctor or nurse know if this is a problem.
This can be reduced by giving the injections of interferon in different places. Sometimes a more widespread rash can occur as a result of an allergic reaction.
It is important to report this to your doctor if you are affected.
Interferon can sometimes cause mood changes such as depression|, anxiety|, restlessness or difficulty sleeping|. If you feel very low or have other changes to your mood while you're taking it, let your doctor know, as help is available.
Let your doctor know if this happens.
Your hair may thin. Rarely interferon can cause complete hair loss|. Any effects on your hair are temporary, and your hair will regrow once the treatment has finished.
This can make you more vulnerable to infection, bleeding or bruising. It can also cause anaemia (a lack of red blood cells). It's important to report any signs of bleeding, bruising or infection to your doctor.
Interferon may alter the rhythm of the heart or affect your blood pressure, but this will go back to normal when you stop taking the drug.
It's important to let your doctor know straight away if you feel unwell or have any severe side effects, even if they're not mentioned above.
Interferon should be kept in a refrigerator. Portable fridges can be bought from camping shops to store the interferon if you're away from home. There will be instructions about this in the patient information leaflet you're given with your interferon.
Some medicines, including those that you can buy in a shop or chemist, can be harmful to take while you’re having interferon. Tell your doctor about any medicines you are taking, including over-the-counter drugs, complementary therapies and herbal drugs.
Interferon may affect your ability to have children. In women it may affect the menstrual cycle, and in men there may be a lowered sperm count. These effects may be temporary but for some people can be permanent. It’s important to discuss fertility with your doctor before starting treatment. We have more information about cancer treatments and fertility for men| and women|.
It's not advisable to become pregnant or father a child while having interferon, as it may harm the developing baby. It’s important to use effective contraception while taking this drug, and for at least a few months afterwards. You can discuss this with your doctor or nurse.
It’s not known whether interferon can be present in semen or vaginal fluids. To protect your partner it’s safest to either avoid sex or use a barrier form of contraception for about 48 hours after treatment.
There is a potential risk that interferon drugs may be present in breast milk so women are advised not to breastfeed during treatment and for a few months afterwards.
If you’re admitted to hospital for a reason not related to the cancer, it’s important to tell the doctors and nurses looking after you that you are having interferon treatment. You should tell them the name of your cancer specialist so that they can ask for advice.
It’s a good idea to know who you should contact if you have any problems or troublesome side effects when you’re at home. During office hours you can contact the clinic or ward where you had your treatment. Your specialist nurse or doctor will tell you who to contact during the evening or at weekends.
This section has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources including:
Thank you to Christine Clarke, Network Lead Pharmacist, and all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed this edition. Reviewing information is just one of the ways you could help when you join our Cancer Voices network|.
Content last reviewed: 1 January 2013
Next planned review: 2015
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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