Gemcitabine (Gemzar ®)
Gemcitabine is a chemotherapy drug used to treat different cancers including bladder, pancreas, non-small cell lung cancer, ovarian and breast cancer.
This information should ideally be read with our general information about chemotherapy and your type of cancer.
How gemcitabine is given
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You usually have gemcitabine in the chemotherapy day unit or during a stay in hospital. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. It may be given on its own or with other chemotherapy drugs. During treatment, you will usually 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 it is okay for you to have chemotherapy.
You will also see a doctor or nurse before you have chemotherapy. They will ask you about how you have been. If your blood results are alright 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 drugs before you start. They give you these and chemotherapy through one of the following:
a short thin tube (cannula) 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 gemcitabine as a drip (infusion) into your cannula or line over about 30 minutes. 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 being given the chemotherapy.
Gemcitabine may cause flu-like symptoms such as: feeling hot or cold and/or shivery, having a headache and aching. You may have these symptoms while the drug is being given or several hours after. Your nurse will tell you if this is likely to happen. They may advise you to take paracetamol. Drinking plenty of fluids will also help.
If the symptoms are severe or don’t improve after 24 hours, contact the hospital.
Your course of chemotherapy
You will have chemotherapy as a course of several sessions (or cycles) of treatment over a few months. How often you have it will depend on the type of cancer you have. Your doctor or nurse will tell you more about this and the number of 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 they have explained to you.
Possible side effects of gemcitabine
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We explain the most common side effects of gemcitabine here. But we don’t include all the rare 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.
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.
Risk of infection
Gemcitabine can reduce the number of white blood cells in your blood. This will make you more likely to get an infection. Your nurse can tell you when your white blood cells are likely to be at their lowest. 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 often.
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
Gemcitabine 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.
Anaemia (low number of red blood cells)
Gemcitabine 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.
Some anti-sickness drugs can make you constipated. Tell your doctor or nurse if this is a problem.
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.
Gemcitabine can cause changes to the lungs. Always tell your doctor if you develop wheezing, a cough, fever or 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.
Changes in the way the kidneys and liver work
Gemcitabine can affect how your kidneys and liver work. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment. You will have blood tests before chemotherapy to check how well your kidneys and liver are working.
Build-up of fluid
You may put on weight or your face, ankles and legs may swell because of fluid building up. 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 will get better after your treatment ends.
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. Gemcitabine can cause a rash, which may be itchy. 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 hair will thin or you may lose all the hair from your head. This usually starts after your first or second cycle of chemotherapy. It is almost always temporary and your hair will grow back after chemotherapy ends. It is important to cover your head to protect your scalp when you are out in the sun. Your nurse can give you advice about coping with hair loss.
Feeling very 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.
Less common side effects of gemcitabine
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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.
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.
Gemcitabine may make you constipated. Drinking at least two litres of fluids (three and a half pints) every day will help. Try to eat more foods that contain fibre (such as fruit, vegetables and wholemeal bread) and take some regular gentle exercise.
Aching or pain in joints and muscles
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.
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 gemcitabine
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Blood clot risk
Cancer increases the chance 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.
Gemcitabine may affect your fertility (being able to get pregnant or father a child). If you are worried about this, you can talk to your doctor or nurse before treatment starts.
Your doctor will advise you not to become pregnant or to father a child during treatment. This is because the drugs may harm a developing baby. It’s important to use effective 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 because there may be chemotherapy in semen or vaginal fluid.
Changes to your periods
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 because there may be 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 section has been compiled a number of reliable sources, including:
electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC). medicines.org.uk (accessed August 2013).
British National Formulary. 65th edition. 2013. British Medical Association and Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain.
Micromedex ® 2.0, 2013, Truven Health Analytics Inc. micromedexsolutions.com (accessed August 2013).
With thanks to: Christine Clarke, Lead Pharmacist Oncology & Haematology who reviewed this edition.
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