Epirubicin (Pharmorubicin ®)
Epirubicin is a chemotherapy drug used to treat lots of different cancers.
This information should ideally be read with our general information about chemotherapy and your type of cancer.
How epirubicin is givenBack to top
You usually have epirubicin in the chemotherapy day unit or during a stay in hospital. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. It is often given with other chemotherapy 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 feeling. 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 the chemotherapy. They give you these and the epirubicin through one of the following:
- a short thin tube that the nurse puts into a vein in your arm or hand (cannula)
- 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).
Epirubicin is a red fluid. Your nurse gives it to you as an injection directly into your vein with a drip (infusion) to flush it through.
Epirubicin 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.
Epirubicin 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:
Tell your nurse straight away if you have any of these symptoms.
- 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
- feeling unwell.
The drug leaks outside the vein
If this happens when you’re having epirubicin, 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 give 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 epirubicin
You have chemotherapy as a course of several sessions (or cycles) of treatment over a few months. Each cycle of epirubicin usually takes 21 days (three weeks). You have epirubicin on the first day of each cycle. This 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 the nurse or pharmacist has explained.
Possible side effects of epirubicinBack to top
We explain the most common side effects of epirubicin 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 result in 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 to call the hospital if you feel unwell or need advice any time of the day or night. Save these numbers in your mobile 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).
Risk of infection
Epirubicin 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.
Anaemia (low number of red blood cells)
Epirubicin 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 cells (blood transfusion).
Bruising and bleeding
Epirubicin 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.
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.
Sore mouth and throat
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.
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.
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. Epirubicin can cause a rash, which may be itchy.
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 get darker. 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 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 epirubicin.
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 epirubicinBack to top
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.
Changes in the way the heart works
Epirubicin can affect the way the heart works. This is very rare with standard doses but may occasionally occur with high-dose treatment. You may have tests to see how well your heart is working before chemotherapy. Some people have tests before each treatment.
If you have any pain or tightening in your chest, tell your doctor straight away. These symptoms can be caused by other conditions but it’s very important to get them checked out.
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.
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 epirubicinBack to top
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 about this.
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.
Epirubicin can affect your fertility (being able to get pregnant or father a child). If you are worried about this, 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.
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 healthcare professional.
Thanks to people like you
Thank you to all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed what you're reading and have helped our information to grow.
You could help us too when you join our Cancer Voices Network - find out more.