Cladribine (Leustat® or LITAK®)

Cladribine is also known as Leustat® or Litak®. It is used to treat hairy cell leukaemia and a type of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). 

What is cladribine (Leustat® or Litak®)?

Cladribine (Leustat® or Litak®) may be used to treat hairy cell leukaemia and B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). It may sometimes be used to treat other cancers. 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 cladribine is given

There are two types of cladribine. Leustat® is given into a vein (intravenously). LITAK® is given as an injection just under the skin (subcutaneously) using a very fine needle into your tummy, top of your thighs or arms. 

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 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 your blood cells are at 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. The chemotherapy drugs can be given:

  • under the skin (subcutaneous injection)
  • through a short thin tube the nurse puts into a vein in your arm or hand (cannula)
  • 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 course of chemotherapy

Your course of treatment will depend on whether it is used to treat hairy cell leukaemia or chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). Your nurse or doctor will discuss your treatment plan with you.

Hairy cell leukaemia

If you have hairy cell leukaemia, cladribine can be given as a continuous drip (infusion) over 7 days. Usually only 1 cycle of treatment is given.

The treatment may be given through a small portable pump connected to either a central line or PICC line. The pump can be carried on a belt or in a bag. You can go home with the pump. The nurses will tell you how to look after it and when to come back and have the pump disconnected.

If you have treatment through a pump, you may need to have a short stay in hospital. If there are no problems, you can have the rest of the treatment at home.

Cladribine can also be given as an injection under the skin (subcutaneously) for hairy cell leukaemia. You have the injections every day, for 5 days. You may have to return to the hospital each day for the injection, or a district nurse be able to give you the injections at home. The nurses may show you how to give the injection yourself. Usually only 1 cycle of treatment is given.

Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL)

If you have CLL, cladribine is usually given as a drip (infusion) into your cannula or central or PICC line. It is usually given over 2 hours.

The drip is given every day, for 5 days. Each cycle usually takes 28 days (4 weeks). You will have your infusion on days 1 to 5 of the cycle. At the end of the 28 days, you start your next cycle. This is the same as the first cycle. You can have up to 6 cycles.

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
  • shivering
  • itching
  • a skin rash
  • feeling dizzy
  • a headache
  • feeling breathless or wheezy
  • 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 happens a few hours after treatment. If you develop any signs or feel unwell after you get home, contact the hospital straight away.

Pain at the injection site

If you have treatment through a drip, it can cause redness, swelling or pain at the place where the drip (infusion) is given, or along the vein. If you notice any of these, 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.

If you have treatment as an injection under the skin, it may sting or ache for a short time. You may notice some swelling, redness or itching around the injection site. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what to expect.

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 sometimes called neutropenia.

An infection can be very serious when the number of white blood cells is low. It is important to get any infection treated as soon as possible. Contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour contact number you have been given 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
  • your temperature goes below 36°C (96.8°F).

Symptoms of an infection include:

  • feeling shivery and shaking
  • a sore throat
  • a cough
  • breathlessness
  • diarrhoea
  • needing to pass urine (pee) a lot, or discomfort when you pass urine.

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, until your cell count increases.

Bruising and bleeding

This treatment can reduce the number of platelets in your blood. Platelets are cells that help the blood to clot.

If the number of platelets is low, you may bruise or bleed easily. You may have:

  • nosebleeds
  • bleeding gums
  • heavy periods
  • blood in your urine (pee) or stools (poo)
  • tiny red or purple spots on the skin that may look like a rash.

Tell your doctor if you have any unexplained bruising or bleeding. You may need a drip to give you 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. Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body. If the number of red blood cells is low, this is called anaemia. You may have symptoms such as:

  • pale skin
  • lack of energy
  • feeling breathless
  • feeling dizzy and light-headed.

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have these symptoms.

If you are very anaemic, you may need a drip to give you extra red blood cells. This is called a blood transfusion.

Feeling sick

Your doctor will give you anti-sickness drugs to help prevent or control sickness during your treatment. 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 often and eat small amounts regularly. It is important to drink enough fluids. If you continue to feel sick, or are sick (vomit) more than once in 24 hours, contact the hospital as soon as possible. They will give you advice. Your doctor or nurse 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.

Fluid build-up

Some people get swelling around their eyes or in their hands, ankles or feet. This is because of a build-up of fluid. If you have any swelling, or if you put on weight very quickly, contact the hospital for advice. Your doctor may prescribe drugs called diuretics to make you pass more urine (pee). This helps get rid of some of the fluid. The swelling gets better after your treatment ends.

Skin changes

This treatment may affect your skin or cause sweating. You may have a rash, which may be itchy. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what to expect. If your skin feels dry, try using an unperfumed moisturising cream every day. 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.

Rarely, a much more severe skin condition can develop. You may have a skin rash which then blisters, and your skin can peel. Contact the hospital straight away if this happens.

Feeling tired

Feeling tired is a common side effect of this treatment. 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 use machinery.

Diarrhoea

This treatment may cause 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.

If you have diarrhoea:

  • try to 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 for advice.

Constipation

This treatment can cause constipation. Constipation means that you are not able to pass stools (poo) as often as you normally do. It can become difficult or painful. 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.

Tummy pain

You may:

  • get pain or discomfort in your tummy (abdomen)
  • feel bloated
  • have indigestion or wind.

Your doctor can give you drugs to help improve these symptoms. Tell them if the pain does not improve or if it gets worse.

Muscle or joint pain

You may get pain in your muscles or joints for a few days after 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.

Effects on the kidneys

This treatment can affect how your kidneys work. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment finishes. You will have blood tests to check how well your kidneys are working. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have blood in your urine (pee) or you are passing urine less than usual.

It is important to drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of non-alcoholic fluid each day to help protect your kidneys.

Effects on the liver

This treatment may affect how your liver works. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment. You will have blood tests to check how well your liver is working.

Headaches

This treatment may cause headaches. If you have headaches, tell your doctor. They may give you painkillers to help.

Problems sleeping and anxiety

Cladribine can cause problems sleeping, or sometimes sleepiness. It can also cause you to feel anxious. If you feel like this, tell your doctor.

It is important not to drive if you feel sleepy or drowsy.

Dizziness

This treatment can make you feel dizzy or unsteady. Let your doctor know if this happens. Do not drive if you feel dizzy.

Raised levels of uric acid in the blood

This treatment may cause the leukaemia cells to break down quickly. This releases a waste product called uric acid into the blood. The kidneys usually get rid of uric acid, but may not be able to cope with large amounts. Too much uric acid can cause swelling and pain in the joints. This is called gout. It can also affect the kidneys and the heart.

Your doctor may give you tablets called allopurinol (Zyloric®) to help prevent this. Drinking at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluid a day will also help. You will have regular blood tests to check the levels of uric acid in your blood.

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.

Less common side effects

Effects on the heart

This treatment can affect how the heart works. You may have tests to see how well your heart is working. These may be done before, during and after treatment.

If the treatment is causing heart problems, your doctor may change the type of treatment you are having.

 

Contact your doctor straight away on the 24-hour number the hospital has given you if you have any of these symptoms during or after treatment:
  • pain or tightness in your chest
  • breathlessness
  • dizziness
  • changes to your heartbeat.

Other conditions can cause these symptoms, but it is important to get them checked by a doctor. If you cannot get through to your doctor, call the NHS urgent advice number on 111.

Effects on the lungs

This treatment can cause changes to the lungs. Tell your doctor if you develop:

  • a cough
  • wheezing
  • breathlessness.

You should also tell them if any existing breathing problems get worse. You may have tests to check your lungs.

Effects on the nervous system

This treatment can affect the nervous system.

Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • loss of vision, blurred, or double vision
  • difficulty speaking
  • weakness in your arms or legs
  • problems with walking or balance
  • numbness, or a loss of feeling or change in sensation
  • confusion or memory problems.

If you have any of these symptoms before treatment, tell the doctor or nurse if they change or get worse.

It is important not to drive or operate machinery if you notice these effects.

Rarely, these effects can be due to a condition called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML). This can happen during your course of treatment, or in the months and years after treatment ends. It is important you tell your doctor or nurse about these effects if they happen at any time.

Second cancer

This treatment can increase the risk of developing a second cancer years later. This is rare. But the benefits of treatment usually far outweigh this risk. Your doctor can talk to you about this.

Other information about cladribine

Blood irradiation

Any blood or platelet transfusions you have after this treatment, should always be treated with radiation (irradiated) first. This lowers the risk of the donated blood cells reacting against your own. It will not damage the blood or make you radioactive.

Your doctor will record in your medical notes that you should only be given irradiated blood products. They will also give you a card to carry in case you are treated at another hospital. Keep this card with you at all times to remind your hospital team that you need irradiated blood or platelets.

Blood clot risk

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

  • throbbing pain, redness or swelling in a leg or arm
  • suddenly feeling breathless or coughing
  • sharp chest pain, which may be worse when you cough or take a deep breath.

If you have any of these symptoms, contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour contact number you have been given. If you cannot get through to your doctor, call the NHS urgent advice number on 111.

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

You can help reduce the risk of developing a blood clot by:
  • staying active during treatment
  • drinking plenty of fluids, especially water.

You may be given anticoagulants to help prevent a clot.

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 the developing baby. It is important to use contraception during and for up to 6 months after your treatment. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can tell you more about this.

Breastfeeding

Women are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment and for 6 months after finishing 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 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.