Doxorubicin (Adriamycin ®)
Doxorubicin, also called Adriamycin ®, is a chemotherapy drug used to treat many different types of cancer.
This information should ideally be read with our general information about chemotherapy and the type of cancer you have.
How doxorubicin is givenBack to top
Doxorubicin will be given in the chemotherapy day unit or during a stay in hospital. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. Doxorubicin can be given in combination with other drugs. 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. Doxorubicin is then given in one of the following ways:
- through a short, thin tube (cannula) 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 doxorubicin (a red fluid) as an injection directly into your cannula or line, with a drip (infusion) to flush it through. Or they give you doxorubicin as a drip run through a pump, which gives you the treatment over a set time.
Sometimes, it may be given over a few days through a small pump connected to your line, which is carried on a belt or in a bag.
Doxorubicin can also be given straight into the bladder (intravesically) to treat non-invasive bladder cancer. Hardly any of the drug is absorbed into the blood, so it rarely affects the rest of the body. You can read more in our information on non-invasive bladder cancer.
When the chemotherapy is being given
Some people might have side effects while they are having the chemotherapy.
Doxorubicin 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
- feeling flushed or short of breath
- swelling of your face or lips
- feeling dizzy
- having pain in your tummy, back or chest
- feeling 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 doxorubicin, 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.
You may suddenly feel warm and your face may get red while the drug is being given. This should only last a few minutes.
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 doxorubicinBack to top
We explain the most common side effects of doxorubicin 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 any 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 told you. 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 result in very serious side effects. These are rarely 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 at medicines.org.uk (eMC).
Risk of infection
Doxorubin treatment can reduce the number of white blood cells in your blood. This will make it more likely you will 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 – these can include feeling shaky, a sore throat, a cough, diarrhoea or needing to pass urine a lot.
The number of white blood cells will usually steadily increase and return 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
Doxorubicin 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. Bruising and bleeding includes:
- bleeding gums
- blood spots
- rashes on the skin.
Some people may need a drip to give them extra platelets.
Anaemia (low number of red blood cells)
Doxorubicin 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).
You may feel sick or be sick 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 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.
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.
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 urine may be a pink-red colour for up to 48 hours after you’ve had your treatment. This is due to the colour of doxorubicin.
Your doctor can prescribe drugs to control diarrhoea. Let them know if the diarrhoea 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.
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 ends. 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.
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. During treatment and for several months afterwards, you'll be more sensitive to the sun and your skin may burn more easily than usual. You can still go out in the sun, but use a suncream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, and cover up with clothing and a hat.
Your skin may darken. It will return to its normal colour after you finish treatment. If you’ve had radiotherapy (either 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 also get darker or discoloured, and/or you may get lines or ridges on them. These changes grow out after treatment finishes. Wearing gloves when washing dishes or using detergents will help protect your nails during treatment.
Changes in the way the kidneys and liver work
Treatment 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.
Raised levels of uric acid in the blood
Doxorubicin may cause the cancer/leukaemia cells to break down quickly. This releases uric acid (a waste product) into the blood. Too much uric acid can cause swelling and pain in the joints, which is called gout. Your doctor may give you tablets called allopurinol (Zyloric ®) to help prevent this. Drinking at least two litres of fluid a day will also help. You will have regular blood tests to check the uric acid levels.
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.
Less common side effects of doxorubicinBack to top
Changes in the way your heart works
Doxorubicin can affect the way the heart works but this is usually temporary. You may have tests to see how well your heart is working before, during and sometimes after treatment.
If you have pain or tightness in your chest, feel breathless or notice changes to your heartbeat at any time during or after treatment, tell a doctor straight away. These symptoms can be caused by other conditions but it’s important to get them checked by a doctor.
Doxorubicin can increase the risk of developing a second cancer, usually leukaemia, years later. This is rare. But the benefits of treatment usually far outweigh this risk. Your doctor can talk to you about this.
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 doxorubicinBack to top
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:
- redness and swelling in a leg
- 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.
Doxorubicin 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 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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