Docetaxel (Taxotere ®)
Docetaxel is a chemotherapy drug used to treat cancers including breast, prostate, non-small cell lung cancer, stomach and head and neck cancers.
This information should ideally be read with our general information about chemotherapy and the type of cancer you have.
How docetaxel is given
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You will have docetaxel in the chemotherapy day unit or during a short stay in hospital. Docetaxel can be given on its own or in combination with other chemotherapy drugs. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. During treatment you will see a cancer doctor, a chemotherapy nurse or a specialist nurse. This is who we mean when we mention doctor or nurse in this information.
Before or on the day of treatment, a nurse or person trained to take blood (phlebotomist) will take a blood sample from you. This is to check that it is okay for you to have chemotherapy.
You will also see a doctor or nurse before you have chemotherapy. They will ask you how you have been. If your blood results are all right on the day of your treatment, the pharmacist will prepare your chemotherapy. Your nurse will tell you when your treatment is likely to be ready.
Your nurse will give you anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs and sometimes a steroid as an injection into a vein. They give you these drugs and the docetaxel through one of the following:
a short thin tube (cannula) that the nurse puts into a vein in your arm or hand
a fine tube that goes under the skin of your chest and into a vein close by (central line)
a fine tube that is put into a vein in your arm and goes up into a vein in your chest (PICC line).
Your nurse will give you docetaxel as a drip (infusion) into your cannula or line. It takes about an hour. They usually run the drip through a pump, which gives you the treatment over a set time.
When the chemotherapy is being given
Some people might have side effects while they are having the chemotherapy.
Docetaxel may cause an allergic reaction while it’s being given. Your nurse will check you for this. If you have a reaction, they will treat it quickly. Signs of a reaction include:
feeling itchy, flushed or short of breath
swelling of your face or lips
having pain in your tummy, back or chest
Tell your nurse straight away if you have any of these symptoms.
You will usually be given steroid tablets to take at home the day before treatment to reduce the chance of this happening. It’s important to take the steroid tablets as you've been told to. Instead of steroid tablets, you may be given a steroid by injection into a vein (intravenously) 30–60 minutes before the docetaxel.
Pain along the vein
If you have this, tell your nurse straight away. They will check your drip site and slow the drip to ease the pain.
Your course of chemotherapy
You have chemotherapy as a course of several sessions (or cycles) of treatment over a few months. Each cycle of docetaxel usually takes 21 days (three weeks). But this will depend on the type of cancer you have. Your doctor or nurse will tell you more about this and how many cycles you are likely to have.
Before you go home, the nurse or pharmacist will give you anti-sickness drugs to take. Take all your tablets exactly as explained to you.
Possible side effects of docetaxel
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We explain the most common side effects of docetaxel here. But we don’t include all the less common and rarer ones that are unlikely to affect you.
You may get some of the side effects we mention but you are very unlikely to get all of them. If you are having other chemotherapy drugs as well, you may have some side effects that we don’t list here. Always tell your doctor or nurse about the side effects you have.
Your doctor can prescribe drugs to help control some side effects. It is very important to take them exactly as your nurse or pharmacist has explained. This means they will be more likely to work better for you. Your nurse will give you advice about managing your side effects. After your treatment is over, the side effects will start to improve.
Serious and life-threatening side effects
Sometimes cancer drugs can have very serious side effects, which rarely may be life-threatening. Your cancer doctor and nurse can explain the risk of these side effects to you.
Contact the hospital
Your nurse will give you telephone numbers for the hospital. You can call them if you feel unwell or need advice any time of day or night. Save these numbers in your phone or keep them somewhere safe.
More information about this drug
We’re not able to list every side effect for this treatment here, particularly the rarer ones. For more detailed information you can visit the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC).
Common side effects of docetaxel
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These side effects may affect more than 1 in 10 people (more than 10%).
Risk of infection
Docetaxel can reduce the number of white blood cells in your blood. This will make you more likely to get an infection. The number of white blood cells will start to reduce five days after treatment and is usually at its lowest 7–10 days after. When the number of white blood cells is low, it’s called neutropenia.
Contact the hospital straight away on the contact number you’ve been given if:
your temperature goes over 37.5°C (99.5°F) or over 38°C (100.4°F), depending on the advice given by your chemotherapy team
you suddenly feel unwell, even with a normal temperature
you have symptoms of an infection – this can include feeling shaky, a sore throat, a cough or needing to pass urine a lot.
Your nurse may give you injections of a drug called GCSF under the skin. It encourages the bone marrow (where blood cells are made) to make more white blood cells.
The number of white blood cells usually increases steadily and returns to normal before your next chemotherapy. You will have a blood test before having more chemotherapy. If your white blood cells are still low, your doctor may delay your treatment for a short time.
Bruising and bleeding
Docetaxel can reduce the number of platelets in your blood. Platelets are cells that help the blood to clot. Tell your doctor if you have any bruising or bleeding you can’t explain. This includes nosebleeds, bleeding gums, blood spots or rashes on the skin. Some people may need a drip to give them extra platelets.
Anaemia (low number of red blood cells)
Docetaxel can reduce the number of red blood cells in your blood. These cells carry oxygen around the body. If the number of red blood cells is low, you may be tired and breathless. Tell your doctor or nurse if you feel like this. If you are very anaemic, you may need a drip to give you extra red blood cells (blood transfusion).
This may happen in the first few days after chemotherapy. Your doctor will prescribe anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs to help prevent or control sickness. Take the drugs exactly as your nurse or pharmacist explains to you. It’s easier to prevent sickness than to treat it after it has started.
If you still feel sick or are vomiting, contact the hospital as soon as possible. They can give you advice and change the anti-sickness drug to one that works better for you.
Feeling tired is a common side effect. It’s often worse towards the end of treatment and for some weeks after it’s over. Try to pace yourself and get as much rest as you need. It helps to balance this with some gentle exercise, such as short walks. If you feel sleepy, don’t drive or operate machinery.
Your doctor can prescribe drugs to control diarrhoea. Let them know if it is severe or if it doesn’t get better. Make sure you drink at least two litres (three and a half pints) of fluids every day if you have diarrhoea.
Loss of appetite
You may lose your appetite during your treatment. Try to eat small meals regularly. Don’t worry if you don’t eat much for a day or two. If your appetite doesn’t improve after a few days, let your nurse or dietitian know. They can give you advice on getting more calories and protein in your diet. They may give you food supplements or meal replacement drinks to try. Your doctor can prescribe some of these and you can buy them from chemists.
Your mouth may become sore and you may get ulcers. This can make you more likely to get an infection in your mouth. Gently clean your teeth and/or dentures morning and night and after meals. Use a soft-bristled or children’s toothbrush. Your nurse might ask you to rinse your mouth regularly or use mouthwashes. It’s important to follow any advice you are given and to drink plenty of fluids.
Tell your nurse or doctor if you have any problems with your mouth. They can prescribe medicines to prevent or treat mouth infections and reduce any soreness.
You may get a bitter or metallic taste in your mouth or find that food tastes different. This should go away when your treatment finishes. Try using herbs and spices (unless you have a sore mouth or ulcers) or strong-flavoured sauces to give your food more flavour. Sucking boiled sweets can sometimes help get rid of a bitter or metallic taste. Your nurse can give you more advice.
Numb or tingling hands or feet
These symptoms are caused by the effect of docetaxel on the nerves. It’s called peripheral neuropathy. You may also find it hard to fasten buttons or do other fiddly tasks.
Always tell your doctor if you have these symptoms. They may be able to control them by lowering the dose of the drug. The symptoms usually improve slowly after treatment finishes, but in some people they may never go away. Talk to your doctor if you are worried about this.
You usually lose all the hair on your head. Your eyelashes, eyebrows and other body hair may also thin or fall out. This usually starts after your first or second cycle of chemotherapy. It is almost always temporary and your hair will grow back after chemotherapy end but, rarely, the hair loss is permanent. It is important to cover your head to protect your scalp when you are out in the sun until your hair grows back. Your nurse can give you advice about coping with hair loss. You might also find our section on coping with hair loss useful at this time.
Scalp cooling is a way of lowering the temperature of the scalp to help reduce hair loss. Your nurse can tell you if this is an option for you.
Chemotherapy may affect your skin. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what to expect. If your skin feels dry, try using an unperfumed moisturising cream every day. If you’ve had radiotherapy recently or in the past, the area that was treated may become red or sore. Always tell your doctor or nurse about any skin changes. They can give you advice and may prescribe creams or medicines to help. Any changes to your skin are usually temporary and improve when treatment finishes.
Your nails may become brittle and break easily. They may get darker or discoloured, and you may get lines or ridges on them. These changes usually grow out over several months after treatment finishes. Rarely, nails may come off, but they will grow back after treatment. Wearing gloves when washing dishes or using detergents will help protect your nails during treatment.
If you get pain, redness or swelling around your nails, let your nurse or doctor know.
Build-up of fluid
You may put on weight or your ankles and legs may swell because of fluid building up. The steroid tablets your doctor prescribes will help to prevent this. Tell your doctor or nurse if fluid builds up. If your ankles and legs swell, it can help to put your legs up on a foot stool or cushion. The swelling gets better after your treatment ends.
Muscle and/or joint pain
You may get pain in your joints or muscles for a few days after chemotherapy. Tell your doctor if this happens so they can prescribe painkillers. Let them know if the pain does not get better. Try to get plenty of rest. Taking regular warm baths may help.
Less common side effects of docetaxel
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These side effects affect fewer than 1 in 10 people (under 10%).
Shortness of breath
Rarely, docetaxel can cause changes to the lungs. Always tell your doctor if you develop wheezing, a cough, or a fever or if you feel breathless. You should also let them know if any existing breathing problems get worse. If necessary, they can arrange for you to have tests to check your lungs.
Your eyes may become watery and feel sore. Your doctor can prescribe eye drops to help with this. If your eyes get red and inflamed (conjunctivitis), tell your doctor. This is because you may need antibiotic eye drops. Docetaxel may also cause blurry vision. Always tell your doctor or nurse if you have eye pain or notice any change in your vision.
Soreness and redness of palms of hands and soles of feet
This is called palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome. It gets better when treatment ends. Your doctor or nurse can give you advice and prescribe creams to improve the symptoms. It can help to keep your hands and feet cool and to avoid tight-fitting socks, shoes and gloves.
It is important to tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you feel ill or have severe side effects. This includes any we don’t mention here.
Other information about docetaxel
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Blood clot risk
Cancer increases the chances of a blood clot (thrombosis) and chemotherapy can add to this. A clot can cause symptoms such as pain, redness and swelling in a leg, breathlessness and chest pain. Contact your doctor straight away if you have any of these symptoms. A blood clot is serious but your doctor can treat it with drugs that thin the blood. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.
Some medicines can interact with chemotherapy or be harmful when you are having chemotherapy. This includes medicines you can buy in a shop or chemist. Tell your doctor about any medicines you are taking, including over-the-counter drugs, complementary therapies and herbal drugs. You may be advised to avoid eating grapefruit or drinking grapefruit juice.
Docetaxel can affect your fertility (being able to get pregnant or father a child). If you are worried about this, you can talk to your doctor before treatment starts.
Your doctor will advise you not to become pregnant or father a child during treatment. This is because the drugs may harm a developing baby. It’s important to use contraception during and for a few months after chemotherapy. You can talk to your doctor or nurse about this.
If you have sex within the first couple of days of having chemotherapy, you need to use a condom. This is to protect your partner in case there is any chemotherapy in semen or vaginal fluid.
Chemotherapy can sometimes stop the ovaries working. You may not get a period every month and they may eventually stop. In some women, this is temporary, but for others it is permanent and they start the menopause.
Women are advised not to breastfeed during treatment and for a few months after. This is in case there is chemotherapy in their breast milk.
Medical and dental treatment
If you need to go into hospital for any reason other than cancer, always tell the doctors and nurses that you are having chemotherapy. Give them contact details for your cancer doctor.
Talk to your cancer doctor or nurse if you think you need dental treatment. Always tell your dentist you are having chemotherapy.
This page has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources, including the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC; medicines.org.uk). If you’d like further information on the sources we use, please feel free to contact us.
This information was reviewed by a medical professional.
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