What is capecitabine?

Capecitabine is used to treat the following cancers:

It may sometimes be used to treat other cancers. Sometimes it is given with radiotherapy (called chemoradiation). 

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.

DPD testing before treatment

Before starting this treatment, you should have a blood test to check whether you have low levels of an enzyme called DPD. This is called DPD deficiency. People who have low DPD levels can develop serious or life-threatening side effects if they have capecitabine. If you have DPD deficiency, this can affect the treatments that are available for you.

You will not know without a test if you have DPD deficiency, as there are no symptoms. Testing can detect most cases of DPD deficiency, but not all cases. You can talk to your cancer doctor about your risk of having DPD deficiency before you start treatment.

How capecitabine is given

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.

You will have blood tests before and regularly during your treatment. This is to check:

  • that your blood cells are at a safe level for you to have chemotherapy
  • how well your liver and kidneys are working.

You will see a doctor or nurse before you have chemotherapy. They will talk to you about your blood results and 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 course of chemotherapy

Capecitabine comes in tablets, so you can take it at home. Capecitabine may be given on its own, or with other chemotherapy drugs.

Chemotherapy is usually given as a course of several cycles of treatment over a few months. The treatment cycle may last 21, 28 or 35 days. This depends on your individual treatment plan. Your nurse or doctor will discuss your treatment plan with you.

The nurse or pharmacist will give you the tablets to take home. You may also get a copy of the treatment plan so you know when to take your drugs. Always take them exactly as explained. This is important to make sure they work as well as possible for you.

You may be given tablets of different strengths. The dose of chemotherapy that you are prescribed may change from one cycle to the next. This may be because of side effects or changes to your weight. It is very important that you know how many tablets to take each time you start a new cycle.

Your nurse or pharmacist may also give you anti-sickness drugs and other medicines to take home. Take all your capsules or tablets exactly as they have been explained to you.

Taking capecitabine tablets

You take capecitabine tablets twice a day, about 12 hours apart. Swallow them whole with a glass of water within half an hour after eating a meal. Take the tablets in the morning after breakfast and then after your evening meal. 

Tell your doctor if you find it difficult to swallow the tablets. They may suggest that you dissolve the capecitabine tablets in water. In this case, dissolve the tablets in a 200ml glass of warm water. Stir the water with a spoon until the tablets are completely dissolved and then drink it immediately. The glass and spoon should be washed and kept separate from your other crockery and cooking utensils.

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:

  • Other people should avoid direct contact with the chemotherapy drugs.
  • Wash your hands after taking your tablets.
  • Keep them in the original package and at room temperature, away from heat and direct sunlight.
  • Keep them safe and out of sight and reach of children.
  • If you are sick just after taking the tablets, contact the hospital. Do not take another dose.
  • If your treatment is stopped return any unused tablets to the pharmacist.

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, nurse or pharmacist can explain the risk of these side effects to you.

If you have low levels of an enzyme called DPD (DPD deficiency), you may have a higher risk of severe or life-threatening side effects.

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.

Common side effects

Risk of infection

This treatment can reduce the number of white blood cells in your blood. These 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. 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.

Diarrhoea

Capecitabine may cause severe diarrhoea. Diarrhoea means passing more stools (poo) than is usual for you, or having watery or loose stools. If you have a stoma, it will be more active than usual.

Your hospital team may give you anti-diarrhoea drugs to take at home.

If you have diarrhoea or an increase in stoma activity:

  • follow any advice from your hospital team about taking anti-diarrhoea drugs
  • drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluids each day
  • avoid alcohol, caffeine, milk products, high-fat foods and high-fibre foods.

Contact the hospital straight away if:

  • you have diarrhoea at night
  • you have diarrhoea more than 4 times in a day
  • you have a moderate or severe increase in stoma activity
  • the anti-diarrhoea drugs do not work within 24 hours.

Your doctor may ask you to stop taking capecitabine. When the diarrhoea is better, they will tell you if you can start taking it again. Sometimes they reduce the dose.

Sore and red palms of hands and soles of feet

You may get sore and red palms of hands and soles of feet. The skin may also begin to peel. This is called palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome. It usually gets better after treatment ends.

Tell your doctor or nurse about any changes to your hands or feet. They can give you advice and prescribe creams to improve any symptoms you have. It can help to:

  • keep your hands and feet cool
  • moisturise your hands and feet regularly
  • avoid tight-fitting socks, shoes and gloves.

Feeling sick

You may feel sick during chemotherapy. 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.

Tummy pain

You may get pain or discomfort in your tummy (abdomen). You may also feel bloated or have indigestion or wind. Your doctor can prescribe drugs to help improve these symptoms. Tell them if the pain does not improve or gets worse.

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.

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.

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.

Changes in the way the heart works

Capecitabine can affect the way your heart works. You may have tests to see how your heart is working before, during and sometimes after treatment. But it is still possible for your heart to be affected even if these tests are normal. Very rarely, this can cause heart failure or a heart attack. The risk of this happening is less than 1 in 100 (1%). This risk is very low but it is important that you know about it.

Tell a doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms at any time during treatment:

  • pain or tightness in your chest
  • breathlessness
  • changes to your heartbeat.

If you have any of these symptoms, you should stop taking the capecitabine tablets until you have spoken to your doctor. Call your doctor or the 24-hour number the hospital has given you. If you cannot get through, call the NHS urgent advice number which is 111.

Less common side effects

Skin and nail changes

Capecitabine may affect your skin and nails. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what to expect. If your skin feels dry, try using an unperfumed moisturising cream every day.

Capecitabine can cause a rash, which may be itchy. Sometimes it can cause areas of your skin to darken. Always tell your doctor or nurse about any skin changes. They can give you advice and may give you creams or medicines to help. Any changes to your skin are usually temporary and improve when treatment finishes.

Very rarely, capecitabine may cause a more serious skin condition. You may have a skin rash which then blisters and your skin can peel. You may also feel unwell with flu-like symptoms such as a high temperature and joint pain. If you have any of these symptoms, you should stop taking the capecitabine tablets until you have spoken to your doctor. Call your doctor or the 24-hour number the hospital has given you. If you cannot get through, call the NHS urgent advice number which is 111.

Joint and back pain

You may get pain in your joints or other areas, such as your back, during treatment. If this happens, tell your doctor so they can give you painkillers. Tell them if the pain does not get better. Having warm baths and taking regular rests may help.

Changes to your taste

You may get a bitter or metal taste in your mouth. Sucking sugar-free sweets may help with this. Some foods may taste different or have no taste. Try different foods to find out what tastes best to you. Taste changes usually get better after treatment finishes. Your nurse can give you more advice.

Helpful hints to improve taste

  • Season food or add spices and herbs to add flavour when cooking.
  • Use strong, flavoured sauces or gravies to make food tastier.
  • Eat sharp-tasting fresh fruit and juices or try sugar-free sweets to leave a pleasant taste in your mouth.
  • Try cold foods as they may have a stronger taste than hot foods.

Constipation

This treatment can cause constipation. Here are some tips that may help:

  • Drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluids each day.
  • Eat high-fibre foods, such as fruit, vegetables and wholemeal bread.
  • Do regular gentle exercise, like going for short walks.

If you have constipation, contact the hospital for advice. Your doctor can give you drugs called laxatives to help.

Hair loss

Your hair may get thinner but you are unlikely to lose all the hair from your head. Hair loss is almost always temporary and your hair will usually grow back after treatment ends. Your nurse can talk to you about ways to cope with hair loss.

Eye problems

Your eyes may become watery and feel sore. Your doctor can give you eye drops to help with this. If your eyes get red and inflamed (conjunctivitis), tell your doctor. You may need antibiotic eye drops.

Headaches

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

Dizziness

Sometimes capecitabine may cause dizziness. Let your doctor know if you feel dizzy. It is important not to drive or operate machinery if you notice these effects.

Difficulty sleeping

Sometimes capecitabine can cause sleeplessness (insomnia). Let your doctor know if you find it difficult to sleep.

Mood changes

You may have some mood changes during this treatment. You may feel low or depressed. Let your doctor or nurse know if you notice any changes.

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

Vaccinations can reduce your risk of getting certain infections. Your doctor or nurse may talk to you about having vaccinations.

Doctors usually recommend that people with cancer have a flu vaccination and a coronavirus vaccination. These are both inactivated vaccinations that can help reduce the risk of infection. People with weak immune systems can have these, as they are not live vaccinations.

If your immune system is weak, you need to avoid live vaccinations. This is because they can make you unwell. Live vaccines, such as shingles, contain a very weak version of the illness they are vaccinating you against. Your cancer doctor or GP can tell you more about live and inactivated 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 during this course of 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.

Information about coronavirus

We understand that people are worried about coronavirus (COVID-19). You may have questions about the different vaccines, or you may be worried about how the pandemic will affect your cancer treatment. We have detailed information about coronavirus and cancer treatment here.

Talk to an expert

We know cancer throws a lot your way, and right now, the coronavirus pandemic is making it even tougher. If you're worried about something, and you need to talk to someone, whatever is on your mind, we're here to listen.

To speak to our experts, you can:

Find out more about the Macmillan teams that are here to support you.