HCX is a combination therapy used to treat stomach (gastric) cancer and cancer where the gullet joins the stomach (gastro-oesophageal cancer). It is used if the cancer is Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2 (HER2) positive.
HCX is named after the initials of the drugs used in the treatment:
Cisplatin and capecitabine are chemotherapy drugs. Trastuzumab is a targeted therapy drug. It is best to read this information with our general information about chemotherapy, targeted therapy 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.
What is HER2 positive cancer?
HER2 is a protein. Some stomach cancers have too much of this protein on the surface of their cells. These are called HER2 positive cancers. The extra HER2 protein helps the cancer cells to divide and grow.
Trastuzumab blocks the HER2 protein. This helps stop the cancer cells from dividing and growing.
The only way to check if a cancer is HER2 positive is to test the cancer cells. Tests can be done on cell samples taken during:
You will be given HCX over 1 or 2 days in a chemotherapy day unit or during a stay in hospital. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you.
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 the treatment.
You will see a doctor or nurse before you have your treatment. 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 treatment. Your nurse will tell you when it is likely to be ready.
Your nurse usually gives you anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs before the treatment. Trastuzumab and cisplatin 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 trastuzumab as a drip (infusion) that is attached to your cannula or line. They usually put the drip through a pump. This will give you the treatment over a set time. The first dose is usually given slowly over 90 minutes. You need to stay in hospital for a few hours afterwards so the nurses can check you for any reaction. Your next trastuzumab treatments are usually given over about 30 minutes.
Your nurse will also give you cisplatin as a drip (infusion). It may be given before or after the trastuzumab drip.
Cisplatin can affect the kidneys. You will be given extra fluids given through the drip before and after the cisplatin. You may also have a drug called mannitol. The fluids and mannitol can help prevent kidney damage. Your nurse will explain how long it will take to have the extra fluids. They will also give you advice about how much fluid to drink for the next 24 hours.
You take capecitabine as tablets.
Your course of treatment
You usually have a course of several cycles of treatment. These will usually be spread over a few months. Your nurse or doctor will tell you how many cycles you will have. Each cycle takes 21 days (3 weeks). You will have trastuzumab and cisplatin as separate drips at the start of each cycle. The nurse or pharmacist will then give you capecitabine tablets to take home. You may be told to take the capecitabine tablets:
- every day for 14 days, followed by a 7 day rest period with no treatment.
- or every day of the cycle of treatment.
Your nurse or pharmacist may also give you anti-sickness drugs and other medicines to take home. They may also give you anti-diarrhoea tablets if you need them. Take all capsules and tablets exactly as they have been explained to you.
Taking capecitabine tablets
You will have capecitabine as tablets. Before you leave hospital, the nurse or pharmacist will give you capecitabine tablets to take at home. Always take your tablets 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 any side effects you have or changes to your weight. It is very important that you know how many tablets to take each time you start a new cycle. You take capecitabine tablets twice a day. Swallow them whole with a glass of water within half an hour of eating a meal. Take them 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. Do not crush or cut the capecitabine tablets.
If you forget to take a tablet, do not take a double dose. Take the next dose when it is due and let your doctor or nurse know.
Other things to remember about your tablets:
- Wash your hands after taking your tablets.
- Other people should avoid direct contact with the chemotherapy drugs.
- 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.
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.
Rarely, capecitabine can cause severe or life-threatening side effects in people who have low levels of an enzyme called DPD. This is called DPD deficiency. You will not know before you start treatment whether you have DPD deficiency as there are no symptoms.
There are tests available which detect most cases of DPD deficiency, but not all cases. If you have DPD deficiency, this can affect the treatments that are available for you. Testing is available in some areas through the NHS. Some cancer centres across the UK will test all new patients.
Talk to your cancer doctor about the risk of you having DPD deficiency before you start treatment. You can ask what your options are if the test is not available through the NHS in your area.
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.
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.
Some people may have side effects while they are being given this treatment or shortly after they have it.
Both trastuzumab and cisplatin can cause an allergic reaction in some people. This is more likely to happen with the first treatment. Signs of a reaction can include:
- feeling hot or flushed
- a skin rash
- 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.
The drug leaks outside the vein
If cisplatin leaks outside the vein it can damage the surrounding tissue. This is called extravasation. Extravasation is not common but if it happens it is important to treat it quickly.
Tell your nurse straight away if you have any stinging, pain, redness or swelling around the vein.
If you get any of these symptoms after you get home, contact the doctor or nurse straight away on the number they gave you.
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
- 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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Your eyes may become watery. Sometimes they may feel sore, red and itchy (conjunctivitis). Your doctor can give you eye drops to help with this. Your pharmacist will tell you how to use your eye drops. It is important to follow their advice.
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.
This treatment 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. This treatment can also cause a rash, which may be itchy. 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 much 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 these symptoms, you must stop taking the capecitabine and contact your doctor immediately.
Sore and red palms of hands and soles of feet
This is called palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome. It usually gets better when treatment ends. Your doctor or nurse can give you advice and prescribe creams to improve any symptoms you may have. It can help to:
- keep your hands and feet cool
- use moisturiser regularly
- avoid tight-fitting socks, shoes and gloves.
This treatment may cause headaches. If this happens, tell your doctor or nurse. They can give you painkillers.
Feeling anxious or having difficulty sleeping
This treatment can affect your mood and may cause feelings of anxiety. It may also cause difficulty sleeping. Talk to your doctor or nurse for advice about managing these side effects.
This treatment can cause dizziness. Tell your doctor or nurse if this is a problem.
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
- 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.
Effects on the kidneys
Cisplatin can affect how your kidneys work. You will have blood tests before and during treatment to check this.
Before and after each treatment, your nurses will give you extra fluids through a drip. This is to protect your kidneys. It is also important to drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluids each day.
If you pass less urine than usual, tell your nurse.
This treatment may cause hearing changes, including hearing loss. You may have a hearing test before you start treatment. After treatment, you may have ringing in the ears. This is called tinnitus. You may also become unable to hear some high-pitched sounds. Hearing changes usually get better after this treatment ends. But some can be permanent. Tell your doctor if you notice any changes in your hearing.
Abdominal (tummy) pain or indigestion
You may have tummy pain or indigestion. Tell your doctor or nurse if this happens. They can prescribe drugs to help.
Joint and muscle pain
You may get pain and stiffness in your joints, and sometimes in your muscles. If this happens, tell your doctor or nurse. They can prescribe painkillers and give you advice.
This treatment may cause your nose to:
- become blocked
- become runny
These side effects are not usually serious but tell your doctor or nurse if you have any of them. They may be able to help if you find them difficult to cope with.
Effects on the lungs
This treatment can cause changes to the lungs. Tell your doctor if you develop:
- a cough
- a fever (high temperature)
You should also tell them if any existing breathing problems get worse. You may have tests to check your lungs.
Your hair may get thinner but you are unlikely to lose all the hair from your head. Hair loss usually starts after your first or second treatment. It 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.
Numb or tingling hands or feet (peripheral neuropathy)
This treatment affects the nerves, which can cause numb, tingling or painful hands or feet. You may 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 for some people they may never go away. Talk to your doctor if you are worried about this.
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
- 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.
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 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.
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.