Vincristine (Oncovin ®)
Vincristine (Oncovin ®) is a chemotherapy drug used to treat many cancers, including leukaemia, lymphoma, myeloma, breast cancer, head and neck cancer, and soft tissue sarcomas.
This information should ideally be read with our general information about chemotherapy and your type of cancer.
How vincristine is given
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You will be given vincristine in the chemotherapy day unit or during a stay in hospital. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. Vincristine can be given in combination with other drugs or by itself. 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 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 gives you anti-sickness drugs before you start. Vincristine 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).
Your nurse can give you vincristine as an injection directly into your line or cannula with a drip (infusion) of fluids to flush it through. Or it can be given as a drip over 5-10 minutes. You may have fluids through a drip before and after vincristine.
When the chemotherapy is being given
Some people might have side effects while they are having the chemotherapy:
Vincristine 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; or feeling dizzy or unwell. Tell your nurse straight away if you have any of these symptoms.
The drug leaks outside the vein
If this happens when you’re having vincristine, it can damage the tissue around the vein. This is called extravasation. Tell the nurse straight away if you have any stinging, pain, redness or swelling around the vein. Extravasation is not common, but if it happens it’s important that it’s dealt with quickly.
If you get any of these symptoms after you get home, contact the doctor or nurse straight away on the number they gave you.
Your course of chemotherapy
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 vincristine
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We explain the most common side effects of vincristine 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
Chemotherapy 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, 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 blood cells are still low, your doctor may delay your treatment for a short time.
Bruising and bleeding
Vincristine 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)
Vincristine 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).
Vincristine may make you constipated and cause tummy pain. 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.
If you haven’t had a bowel motion for two days, contact the hospital for advice. Your doctor can prescribe laxatives to help you. Always contact the hospital straight away if you are constipated and have tummy pain or are being sick.
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.
Problems passing urine
If you feel that you are passing more or less urine than usual, or if you have pain when passing urine, contact the hospital straight away.
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. 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.
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.
Feeling very tired is a common side effect. It’s often worse towards the end of treatment and for some weeks after it’s finished. 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.
Numb or tingling hands or feet
These symptoms are caused by the effect of vincristine on nerves. It’s called peripheral neuropathy. You may also find it hard to fasten buttons or do other fiddly tasks.
Tell your doctor if you have these symptoms. They sometimes need to lower 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.
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.
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. 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.
Some people may notice some hearing loss or deafness. Tell your doctor if you notice any changes.
This treatment may affect how your liver works. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment. You will have regular blood tests to check how well your liver is working.
Let your doctor or nurses know if you have headaches. They can give you painkillers.
Vincristine may cause pain in your jaw. Tell your nurse or doctor if you notice this.
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 vincristine
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Effects on the lungs
Treatment 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.
Rarely, vincristine may affect your vision. Always tell your doctor or nurse if you have eye pain or notice any change in your vision.
Effects on the nervous system
Vincristine can affect the nervous system. You may feel dizzy or unsteady. Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you notice any of these symptoms. They may make some changes to your treatment if they become a problem for you. It’s important not to drive or operate machinery if you notice these effects. Rarely, this treatment can cause seizures (fits).
Other information about vincristine
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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.
Vincristine may affect the way some drugs work. These include other anti-cancer drugs, antibiotics or drugs to prevent fits (anti-seizure drugs). Tell your doctor if you are taking any of these. Medicines you can buy in a shop or chemist may also be harmful when you are having chemotherapy. Tell your doctor about any medicines you are taking, including over-the-counter drugs, complementary therapies and herbal drugs.
Vincristine 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. 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:
electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC). medicines.org.uk (accessed July 2013).
Perry MC. The Chemotherapy Source Book. 5th edition. 2012. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
With thanks to Elin Gwyn, Macmillan Pharmacist, who reviewed this edition.
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