What is bleomycin?

Bleomycin is a chemotherapy drug used to treat different types of cancer. It is best to read this information with our general information about chemotherapy and the type of cancer you have.

Your doctor will talk to you about this treatment and its possible side effects before you agree (consent) to have treatment.

How bleomycin is given

You will be given bleomycin in the chemotherapy day unit or during a stay in hospital. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. Bleomycin can be given in combination with other cancer drugs.

During treatment you usually see a cancer doctor, a chemotherapy nurse or a specialist nurse, and a specialist pharmacist. This is who we mean when we mention doctor, nurse or pharmacist 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 your blood cells are at a safe level to have chemotherapy.

You will see a doctor or nurse before you have chemotherapy. They will ask you how you have been feeling. If your blood results are okay, the pharmacist will prepare your chemotherapy. Your nurse will tell you when your treatment is likely to be ready.

Your nurse usually gives you anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs before the chemotherapy. Bleomycin can be given through:

  • a short thin tube 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)

Your nurse will give you bleomycin as a slow injection or drip (infusion) into your cannula or line.

Bleomycin can also be given in other ways

  • As an injection into a muscle.
  • As an injection into the tumour. This is used when cancers have spread to the skin. This will not cause the same side effects listed below. Your doctor or nurse will give you more information.

Your course of chemotherapy

You usually have a course of several cycles of treatment over a few months. The length of your treatment and number of cycles you have will depend on the type of cancer you are being treated for. Your doctor or nurse will talk to you about your treatment plan.

About side effects

We explain the most common side effects of this treatment here. We also include some less common side effects.

You may get some of the side effects we mention, but you are unlikely to get all of them. If you are also having treatment with other cancer drugs, you may have some side effects that we have not listed here. Always tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about any side effects you have.

Your doctor can give you drugs to help control some side effects. It is important to take them exactly as your nurse or pharmacist explains. This means they will be more likely to work for you. Your nurse will give you advice about managing your side effects. After your treatment is over, most side effects start to improve.

Serious and life-threatening side effects

Some cancer treatments can cause severe side effects. Rarely, these may be life-threatening. Your cancer doctor or nurse can explain the risk of these side effects to you.

Contact the hospital

Your nurse will give you telephone numbers for the hospital. If you feel unwell or need advice, you can call them at any time of the day or night. Save these numbers in your phone or keep them somewhere safe.

More information

We cannot list every side effect for this treatment. There are some rare side effects that are not listed. You can visit the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) for more detailed information.

Side effects while treatment is being given

Some people may have side effects while they are being given the chemotherapy or shortly after they have it:

Allergic reaction

Some people have an allergic reaction while having this treatment. Signs of a reaction can include:

  • feeling hot or flushed
  • a skin rash
  • itching
  • shivering
  • feeling dizzy
  • a headache
  • feeling breathless
  • swelling of your face or mouth
  • pain in your back, tummy or chest.

Your nurse will check you for signs of a reaction during your treatment. If you feel unwell or have any of these signs, tell them straight away. If you do have a reaction, it can be treated quickly.

Sometimes a reaction can happen a few hours after treatment. If you get any signs or feel unwell after you get home, contact the hospital straight away.

Flu-like symptoms

This treatment may cause flu-like symptoms such as:

  • feeling hot or cold and/or shivery
  • having a headache
  • aching.

If you have this, tell your nurse or doctor straight away. You may have these symptoms while the drug is being given or several hours afterwards. 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. Your nurse may give you a drug before your chemotherapy, to reduce the risk of flu-like symptoms occurring.

If the symptoms are severe or do not improve within 24 hours, contact the hospital.

Pain along the vein

Bleomycin can cause pain at the place where the drip (infusion) is given or along the vein. If you feel pain, tell your nurse or doctor straight away so that they can check the site. They may give the drug more slowly or flush it through with more fluid to reduce pain.

Problems at the injection site

Bleomycin can be given as an injection into a muscle. Sometimes it causes redness and swelling where it is given (injection site). This can be uncomfortable. To reduce the irritation, your nurse will change the injection site each time you have an injection. They can also give you advice on how to relieve any discomfort.

Other information

Blood clot risk

Cancer and some cancer treatments can increase the risk of a blood clot. Symptoms of a blood clot include:

  • pain, redness or swelling in a leg or arm
  • breathlessness
  • chest pain.

If you have any of these symptoms, contact a doctor straight away.

A blood clot is serious, but can be treated with drugs that thin the blood. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.

Other medicines

Some medicines can affect how this treatment works or be harmful when you are having it. Always tell your cancer doctor about any drugs you are taking or planning to take, such as:

  • medicines you have been prescribed
  • medicines you buy in a shop or chemist
  • vitamins, herbal drugs and complementary therapies.

Tell other doctors, pharmacists or dentists who prescribe or give you medicines that you are having this cancer treatment.

You can visit the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) for more detailed information about your treatment.

Vaccinations

Your doctor or nurse may talk to you about vaccinations. These help reduce your risk of getting infections.

Doctors usually recommend that you have a flu jab, which is an inactivated vaccination. People with weak immune systems can have this type of vaccination.

If your immune system is weak, you need to avoid live vaccinations such as shingles. Your cancer doctor or GP can tell you more about live vaccinations.

Contraception

Your doctor will advise you not to get pregnant or make someone pregnant while having this treatment. The drugs may harm a developing baby. It is important to use contraception during your treatment and for a while after treatment finishes. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can tell you more about this.

Breastfeeding

Women are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment. This is because the drugs could be passed to the baby through breast milk.

Fertility

Some cancer drugs can affect whether you can get pregnant or make someone pregnant. If you are worried about this, it is important to talk with your doctor before you start treatment.

Sex

If you have sex in the first few days after chemotherapy, you need to use a condom. This is to protect your partner in case there is any chemotherapy in semen or vaginal fluids.

Medical and dental treatment

If you need medical treatment for any reason other than cancer, always tell the doctors and nurses that you are having cancer treatment. Give them the contact details for your cancer doctor so they can ask for advice.

If you think you need dental treatment, talk to your cancer doctor or nurse. Always tell your dentist you are having cancer treatment.

Common side effects

Feeling sick

You may feel sick in the first few days after this treatment. Your doctor will give you anti-sickness drugs to help prevent or control sickness. Take the drugs exactly as your nurse or pharmacist tells you. It is easier to prevent sickness than to treat it after it has started.

If you feel sick, take small sips of fluids and eat small amounts often. If you continue to feel sick, or if you vomit more than once in 24-hours, contact the hospital as soon as possible. They will give you advice and may change the anti-sickness drug to one that works better for you.

Loss of appetite

This treatment can affect your appetite. Do not worry if you do not eat much for a day or two. But if your appetite does not come back after a few days, tell your nurse or dietitian. They will give you advice. They may give you food or drink supplements.

Skin changes

Bleomycin 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. Your skin may darken sometimes in patches during treatment. If you have had radiotherapy (either recently or in the past), the area that was treated may become red or sore.

Occasionally, bleomycin causes long thin streaks that look a bit like scratches to appear on one or more areas of skin.

This treatment may cause a skin rash, rarely this can become severe. If this happens contact the hospital for advice straightaway.

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 will improve when treatment finishes.

Scleroderma

This is a condition that can cause the skin to harden and thicken. It sometimes also affects body organs, joints and tendons. Scleroderma is caused by the immune system attacking healthy tissue in the body. Tell your doctor if you notice any of these skin changes or have problems with your joints. 

Nail changes

Your nails may grow more slowly or break more easily. You may notice white lines across your nails, or other changes to their shape or colour. Once the treatment has ended, any changes usually take a few months to grow out.

There are things you can do to look after your nails:

  • Keep your nails and hands moisturised.
  • Wear gloves to protect your nails when you are doing things in the house or garden.
  • Do not use false nails during this treatment. It is fine to wear nail varnish.
  • If your toenails are affected, wear well-fitted shoes to cushion them.

Hair loss

Your hair will get thinner or you may lose all the hair from your head. You may also lose your eyelashes, eyebrows or other body hair. Hair loss usually starts after your first or second treatment.

Your nurse can talk to you about ways to cope with hair loss. There are ways to cover up hair loss if you want to. It is important to cover your head to protect your scalp when you are out in the sun.

Hair loss is almost always temporary and your hair will usually grow back after treatment ends.

Feeling tired

Feeling tired is a common side effect. It is often worse towards the end of treatment and for some weeks after it has finished. Try to pace yourself and plan your day so you have time to rest. Gentle exercise, like short walks, can give you more energy. If you feel sleepy, do not drive or operate machinery.

Sore mouth

You may get a sore mouth or mouth ulcers. This can make you more likely to get a mouth infection.

Use a soft toothbrush to clean your teeth or dentures in the morning, at night and after meals.

If your mouth is sore:

  • tell your nurse or doctor – they can give you a mouthwash or medicines to help
  • try to drink plenty of fluids
  • avoid alcohol, tobacco, and foods that irritate your mouth.

Effects on the lungs

You may have tests to check your lungs before, during and after treatment. Tell your doctor if you develop:

  • a cough
  • wheezing
  • breathlessness.

You should also tell them if any existing breathing problems get worse.

Smoking can increase the risk of your lungs being affected. If you smoke talk to your doctor about stopping before you start treatment.

After treatment with bleomycin, breathing higher doses of oxygen for several hours can cause lung problems. If you need to have a general anaesthetic or oxygen therapy in the future, always tell the doctor that you have had bleomycin.

Effects on the lungs can happen months or years after treatment with bleomycin. Tell your doctor if you notice any changes. Scuba diving is not recommended after treatment with bleomycin.

Headaches

This treatment may cause headaches. If this happens, tell your doctor or nurse. They can give you painkillers.

Less common side effects

Risk of infection

This treatment can reduce the number of white blood cells in your blood. This is more common if you are having other cancer drugs with bleomycin. White blood cells fight infection. If the number of white blood cells is low, you are more likely to get an infection. A low white blood cell count is called neutropenia.

If you have an infection, it is important to treat it as soon as possible. Contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour contact number you have if:

  • your temperature goes over 37.5°C (99.5°F)
  • you suddenly feel unwell, even with a normal temperature
  • you have symptoms of an infection.

Symptoms of an infection include:

  • feeling shivery
  • a sore throat
  • a cough
  • diarrhoea
  • needing to pass urine often.

It is important to follow any specific advice your cancer treatment team gives you.

The number of white blood cells will usually return to normal before your next treatment. You will have a blood test before having more treatment. If your white blood cell count is low, your doctor may delay your treatment for a short time.

Bruising and bleeding

This treatment can reduce the number of platelets in your blood. This is more common if you are having other cancer drugs with bleomycin. Platelets are cells that help the blood to clot. Tell your doctor if you have any bruising or bleeding that you cannot explain. This includes:

  • nosebleeds
  • bleeding gums
  • tiny red or purple spots on the skin that may look like a rash.

Some people may need a drip to give them extra platelets. This is called a platelet transfusion.

Anaemia (low number of red blood cells)

This treatment 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. This is called a blood transfusion.