Melphalan (Alkeran ®)
Melphalan is a chemotherapy drug used to treat different cancers including myeloma, melanoma and ovarian cancer.
This information should ideally be read with our general information about chemotherapy and your type of cancer.
How melphalan is given
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You have melphalan in the chemotherapy day unit or during a stay in hospital. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. During treatment, you 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 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 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. Melphalan is then given in one of the following ways:
through a short thin tube (cannula) that the nurse puts into a vein in your arm or hand
through a fine tube that goes under the skin of your chest and into a vein close by (central line)
through a fine tube that is put into a vein in your arm and goes up into a vein in your chest (PICC line)
into an artery in the arm or leg.
When melphalan is given into an artery in the arm or leg, it is done under a general anaesthetic. The procedure is called isolated limb perfusion. We have separate information explaining how this is done and the side effects.
Your nurse can give you melphalan as a slow injection or drip (infusion) into your cannula or line. They usually run the drip through a pump, which gives you the treatment over a set time. You'll be given fluids through a drip before and during the melphalan injection.
When the chemotherapy is being given through a cannula or line
Some people may have the following side effects while they are having the chemotherapy through a cannula or line:
Melphalan 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 can include: a rash; feeling itchy, flushed or short of breath; swelling of your face or lips; feeling dizzy; having pain in your tummy, back or chest; or feeling unwell. Tell your nurse straight away if you have any of these symptoms.
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.
Taking melphalan as chemotherapy tablets
If you are to take melphalan as tablets, the nurse or pharmacist will give you these to take when you are at home. Always take your tablets exactly as instructed. This is important to make sure they work as well as possible for you.
They will also give you anti-sickness drugs to take. Again, take all your tablets exactly as instructed.
You usually take melphalan tablets once a day. Swallow them whole with a glass of water.
If you are sick just after taking the tablets, contact the hospital. You may need to take another dose. If you forget to take a tablet, do not take a double dose. Keep to your regular schedule and let your doctor or nurse know.
Other things to remember about your tablets:
Keep them in the original package.
Store them in the fridge.
Keep them safe and out of the reach of children.
Return any remaining tablets to the pharmacist if your treatment is stopped.
Chemotherapy is usually given as a course of several sessions (cycles) of treatment over a few months. The length of your treatment and the number of cycles you have will depend on the type of cancer you're being treated for. Your nurse or doctor will discuss your treatment plan with you.
Possible side effects of melphalan
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We explain the most common side effects of melphalan 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 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
Chemotherapy can reduce the number of white blood cells in your blood. This will make you more likely to get an infection. 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, diarrhoea or needing to pass urine a lot.
The number of white blood cells usually increases steadily and returns to normal before your next treatment. 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
Melphalan 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)
Melphalan 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).
Feeling very tired is a common side effect. It’s often worse towards the end of treatment and for some weeks after. Try to pace yourself and get as much rest as you need. It helps to balance this with taking some gentle exercise, such as short walks. If you feel sleepy, don’t drive or operate machinery.
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.
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.
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.
Hair loss is rare with melphalan tablets. If you are having high-dose treatment with melphalan, all of the hair from your head will fall out. 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 ends. It is important to cover 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.
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. Melphalan 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.
Changes in the way the liver works
Melphalan may affect how your liver works. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment. You will have blood tests to check how well your liver is working.
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.
Less common side effects of melphalan
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Effects on the lungs
Melphalan can cause changes to the lungs. Always tell your doctor if you develop wheezing, a cough, a 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.
Tumour lysis syndrome (TLS)
High doses of melphalan may cause the cancer cells to break down very quickly. This releases uric acid (a waste product) into the blood. The kidneys usually get rid of uric acid but may not be able cope with large amounts. This can cause chemical imbalances in the blood that affect the kidneys and the heart. This is called tumour lysis syndrome (TLS).
To reduce the risk of TLS, your doctor may give you a drug called rasburicase. You will have this as a drip. You will also be given fluid through your drip to help protect your kidneys.
You may only need rasburicase with the first treatment. After that, you can have tablets called allopurinol (Zyloric ®) instead.
Rarely, melphalan can increase the risk of developing a second cancer years later. But the benefits of treatment usually far outweigh this risk. Your doctor can talk to you about this.
Other information about melphalan
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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.
Melphalan 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 in case there is any 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 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. Explain you are taking chemotherapy tablets that no one should stop or restart without advice from your cancer doctor. 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 using a number of reliable sources including:
With thanks to Man-Chie Chow, Lead Pharmacist, who reviewed this edition.
Thank you to all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed what you're reading and have helped our information to grow.
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