This information is about a chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer called CAV (sometimes called VAC).
The drugs that are used
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CAV is named after the initials of the chemotherapy drugs used. These are:
How treatment is given
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CAV treatment can usually be given to you as a day patient. Before you start treatment you will need to have a blood test – either on the same day, or a few days beforehand. You will also be seen by a doctor, specialist nurse or pharmacist. If the results of your blood test are normal, the pharmacy will prepare your chemotherapy drugs. This may take a couple of hours.
The nurse will insert a thin, flexible tube (cannula) into a vein in your hand or arm. You may find this uncomfortable or a little painful but it shouldn't take long. Some people have their chemotherapy given through a thin, plastic tube inserted under the skin into a vein near the collarbone (central line), or passed through a vein in the crook of their arm (PICC line). Your doctor or nurse will explain more about this to you.
You'll be given some anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs as tablets or by injection through the cannula, central line or PICC line, which is connected to a drip (infusion).
The chemotherapy drugs are then given separately:
vincristine (a colourless fluid) is given as a small infusion that takes about 5–10 minutes
doxorubicin (a red fluid) is given by injection into an infusion of salt water (saline)
cyclophosphamide (a colourless fluid) is given as an injection into an infusion of saline, or as a short infusion.
The whole process will take about an hour.
If you're being treated as a day patient, you can go home when the treatment has finished and the cannula will be removed before you go. If you have a central or PICC line it will usually stay in place, ready for your next cycle of chemotherapy. You'll be shown how to look after the line.
You'll be given a supply of anti-sickness drugs to take home with you. It's important to take these as directed, even if you aren't feeling sick. This is because some anti-sickness medicines are much better at preventing sickness than stopping it once it starts.
How often treatment is given
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Your doctor may use the word 'regimen' (eg the CAV regimen) when talking about your chemotherapy. This means the whole plan or schedule of your particular chemotherapy treatment.
On the first day of your treatment (day one), you'll be given cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin and vincristine as described on one day only. After this you'll have a rest period with no chemotherapy for the next three weeks. This completes what is called a cycle of your treatment.
After the rest period, the same treatment will be repeated again, which begins the next cycle of your chemotherapy. Usually 4–6 cycles are given over a period of 3–4 months. This makes up a course of treatment.
Each person’s reaction to chemotherapy is different. Some people have very few side effects, while others may experience more. The side effects described here won't affect everyone having CAV chemotherapy.
We have outlined the most common side effects but haven't included those that are rare and unlikely to affect you. If you notice any effects that aren't listed here, discuss them with your doctor, chemotherapy nurse or pharmacist.
Risk of infection
CAV can reduce the number of white blood cells, which help fight infection. White blood cells are produced by the bone marrow. If the number of your white blood cells is low you'll be more prone to infections. A low white blood cell count is called neutropenia.
Neutropenia begins seven days after treatment and your resistance to infection is usually at its lowest 10–14 days after chemotherapy. The number of your white blood cells will then increase steadily and usually return to normal before your next cycle of chemotherapy is due.
Contact your doctor or the hospital straight away if:
your temperature goes above 38˚C (100.4˚F)
you suddenly feel unwell, even with a normal temperature.
You'll have a blood test before having more chemotherapy to check the number of white blood cells. Occasionally, your treatment may need to be delayed if your number of blood cells (blood count) is still low. You may be given antibiotics (prophylactic antibiotics) to help prevent infections.
Bruising and bleeding
CAV can reduce the production of platelets, which help the blood to clot. Tell your doctor if you have any unexplained bruising or bleeding, such as nosebleeds, bleeding gums, blood spots or rashes on the skin. You can have a platelet transfusion if your platelet count is low.
CAV can reduce the number of red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. A low red blood cell count is called anaemia. This may make you feel tired and breathless. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have these symptoms. You may need to have a blood transfusion if the number of red blood cells becomes too low.
Feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting)
Your doctor can prescribe very effective 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; they can prescribe other anti-sickness drugs that may be more effective.
Some anti-sickness drugs can cause constipation. Let your doctor or nurse know if this is a problem.
Feeling tired is a common side effect of chemotherapy, 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.
This usually starts 3–4 weeks after starting treatment, although it may occur earlier. Hair usually falls out completely. You may also have thinning and loss of eyelashes, eyebrows and other body hair. This is temporary and your hair will start to grow again once the treatment has finished. Your hair may grow back straighter, curlier, finer, or a slightly different colour than it was before. Your nurse can give you advice about coping with hair loss.
Scalp cooling is a method of reducing hair loss that may be helpful for some people. You can ask your doctor or nurse if it's available at your hospital.
Your mouth may become sore or dry, or you may notice small ulcers during this treatment. Drinking plenty of fluids, and cleaning your teeth regularly and gently with a soft toothbrush, can help to reduce the risk of this happening. Some people may find sucking on ice soothing. Tell your nurse or doctor if you have any of these problems, as they can prescribe mouthwashes and medicine to prevent or clear mouth infections.
You may notice that food tastes different. Normal taste usually comes back after treatment finishes. A dietitian or specialist nurse at your hospital can give you advice about ways of coping with this side effect.
Irritation of the bladder
Cyclophosphamide may irritate your bladder. It’s important to drink as much fluid as you can (at least two litres) during the 24 hours following chemotherapy to help to prevent this.
Doxorubicin is red and, as a result, your urine may become a pink-red colour. This is normal and can last up to 48 hours after your treatment. Let your doctor know if you have any discomfort when you pass urine, or if you notice any blood in it.
Numbness or tingling in hands or feet
This is due to the effect of vincristine on nerves and is known as peripheral neuropathy. You may also notice that you have difficulty doing up buttons or similar fiddly tasks.
Tell your doctor if you notice any numbness or tingling in your hands or feet. It's important to report your symptoms to your doctor as they may be controlled by slightly lowering the dose of the drug.
This side effect usually improves slowly a few months after the treatment has finished. Sometimes symptoms can persist, talk to your doctor if this happens.
The colour of your nails may change. They may become darker and white lines may appear on them. These usually grow out over several months once the treatment has finished.
You may get constipated. This can usually be helped by drinking plenty of fluids, eating more fibre and doing some exercise. You may need to take medicine to help (laxatives). Your doctor can prescribe these or you can buy them at a pharmacy.
Less common side effects
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CAV can cause diarrhoea. This can usually be easily controlled with medicine but tell your doctor if it is severe or continues. It's important to drink plenty of fluids if you have diarrhoea.
Rarely, your skin may darken. If it does, it usually goes back to normal a few months after the treatment has finished. During treatment and for several months afterwards, you will be more sensitive to the sun and your skin may burn more easily than normal. You can still go out in the sun, but should wear a suncream with a high sun protection factor (SPF) and cover up with clothing and a hat.
Sometimes areas of skin that have been treated with radiotherapy may become red and sore. Tell your doctor if this happens.
Changes in the way your heart works
This is very rare with usual doses of doxorubicin, but may occasionally occur with high-dose treatment. The muscle of the heart may be affected, usually temporarily. Tests to see how well your heart is working may be carried out before the drug is given, and sometimes before each treatment.
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.
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Leakage into the tissue around the vein (extravasation)
If this happens when doxorubicin or vincristine is being given, the tissue in that area can be damaged. Tell the doctor or nurse immediately if you notice any stinging or burning around the vein while the drug is being given. This is unlikely to happen if the chemotherapy is given through a central or PICC line.
If the area around the injection site becomes red or swollen at any time, you should tell the doctor or nurse on the ward. If you are at home, ring the clinic or ward and ask to speak to the doctor or nurse.
You may have a sudden feeling of warmth and some reddening in your face. This can happen for a short period of time while the drug is being given.
Risk of developing a blood clot
Cancer can increase the risk of developing a blood clot (thrombosis), and chemotherapy may increase this risk further.
A blood clot may cause symptoms such as pain, redness and swelling in a leg, or breathlessness and chest pain. Blood clots can be very serious so it’s important to tell your doctor straight away if you notice any of these symptoms. Most clots can be treated with drugs that thin the blood. The doctor or nurse can give you more information.
Some medicines, including those you can buy in a shop or chemist, can be harmful to take when you are having chemotherapy. Tell your doctor about any medicines you're taking, including over-the-counter drugs, complementary therapies and herbal drugs.
Your ability to become pregnant or father a child may be affected by having this treatment. It's important to discuss fertility with your doctor before starting treatment.
It's not advisable to become pregnant or father a child while having CAV, as it may harm the developing baby. It's important to use effective contraception while taking these drugs, and for at least a few months afterwards. You can discuss this with your doctor or nurse.
It’s not known whether chemotherapy drugs 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 chemotherapy.
Loss of periods in women
Due to the effect of chemotherapy on the ovaries, women may find that their periods become irregular and they may eventually stop.
In some women this may be temporary, but for others it will be permanent. This will result in menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, sweats and vaginal dryness.
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 chemotherapy 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. Your chemotherapy nurse or doctor will give you details of who to contact for advice. This should include ‘out-of hours’ contact details if you need to call someone at evenings, overnight or at the weekend.
This section is based upon our CAV chemotherapy fact sheet, which has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources including:
Sweetman, et al. Martindale: The Complete Drug Reference. 37th edition. 2011. Pharmaceutical Press.
British National Formulary. 62nd edition. 2011. British Medical Association and Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain.
electronic Medicines Compendium. (accessed October 2011).
Perry MC. The Chemotherapy Source Book. 4th edition. 2007. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.