You will usually be given daunorubicin during a stay in hospital. Sometimes you can have it in a chemotherapy day unit as an outpatient.
A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. Daunorubicin can be given with other cancer drugs.
During a course of treatment, you usually see a:
- cancer doctor
- chemotherapy nurse or specialist nurse
- 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 it is safe for you to have chemotherapy.
You will speak to a doctor, nurse or pharmacist 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 pharmacy team will prepare your chemotherapy.
Your nurse usually gives you anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs before the chemotherapy. You usually have daunorubicin through:
- a central line – a fine tube that goes under the skin of your chest and into a vein close by
- a PICC line – a fine tube that is put into a vein in your arm and goes up into a vein in your chest.
- an implantable port (portacath) – a disc that is put under the skin on your chest or arm and goes into a vein in your chest.
Some people may have daunorubicin through a cannula. This is a short, thin tube the nurse puts into a vein in your arm or hand.
Daunorubicin is a red fluid. Your nurse may give it as a slow injection over 20 minutes. Or they may give it as an infusion (drip). This means they run the drip through a pump. This gives you the treatment over a set time.
Your course of chemotherapy
You usually have a course of several cycles of treatment over a few months.
Each cycle usually takes 21 days (3 weeks) or 28 days (4 weeks), depending on what type of cancer you have. You have your treatment and then you have a rest period before your next cycle.
Your nurse or doctor will discuss your treatment plan with you.
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.
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 have an allergic reaction while having this treatment. Signs of a reaction can include:
- feeling hot or flushed
- 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.
The drug leaks outside the vein
The drug may leak outside the vein. If this happens it can damage the tissue around the vein. This is called extravasation. Extravasation is not common but if it happens it is important that it is dealt with quickly. Tell your nurse straight away if you have any stinging, pain, redness or swelling around the vein.
Pain along the vein
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
- 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.
You will have regular blood tests during treatment. If needed, your doctor may reduce or 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:
- 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.
Daunorubicin may turn your urine red. This may last for up to 48 hours after your treatment. It is not harmful.
The nurses will give you anti-sickness drugs regularly to help prevent or control sickness during your treatment. If you feel sick or are sick (vomit), tell your nurse or doctor. They may change the anti-sickness drug to one that works better for you.
This treatment will make you feel very tired and you will need a lot of rest. You will get tired easily for some months after treatment has finished. Gentle exercise, like short walks, can give you more energy. The tiredness will slowly get better.If you feel sleepy, do not drive or use machinery.
Loss of appetite
This treatment can affect your appetite. Don't worry if you do not eat much for a day or 2. But if your appetite does not come back after a few days, or if you are losing weight, tell your nurse or dietitian. They can give you advice. They may give you food or drink supplements. Or they may suggest changes to your diet or eating habits to help.
Sore mouth and throat
This treatment may cause a sore mouth and throat. You may also get mouth ulcers. This can make you more likely to get a mouth or throat infection. Use a soft toothbrush to clean your teeth or dentures in the morning, at night and after meals.
If your mouth or throat 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 and throat.
Sucking ice chips may sometimes help relieve mouth or throat pain. But if you are having radiotherapy to the head or neck, do not suck on ice. It can cause damage.
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.
You usually lose all the hair from your head. You may also lose your eyelashes and eyebrows, as well as 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. Your scalp may be sensitive. It is important to cover your head to protect your skin when you are out in the sun.
Hair loss is usually temporary. Your hair will usually grow back after treatment finishes. Rarely, hair may not grow back. Or it may grow back thinner than before. If you are worried about this, talk to your cancer doctor or nurse.
Daunorubicin may affect the skin. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what to expect. If your skin feels dry, try using an unperfumed moisturising cream every day. Daunorubicin can cause a rash, which may be itchy.
Your skin may darken. It will return to its normal colour after you finish treatment. If you have had radiotherapy either recently or in the past, the area that was treated may change colour, or 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. Changes to the skin usually improve after treatment finishes.
This treatment can affect your nails. They may grow more slowly or break more easily. You might notice ridges or white or dark lines across your nails. Sometimes nails can become loose or fall out. When treatment finishes, any changes usually disappear as the nails grow out.There are things you can do to look after your nails:
- Moisturise your nails and cuticles regularly.
- Keep your nails clipped short.
- Wear gloves to protect your nails when you are doing things in the house or garden.
- Keep your hands and nails clean to help avoid infection, but avoid bathing in very hot water.
- Do not use false nails, gels or other acrylics during this treatment, as they may increase the risk of infection.
- It is fine to wear nail varnish, but try to use a water-based polish. Avoid using harsh chemicals, such as acetone, when taking off the polish.
- If your toenails are affected, wear well-fitted shoes to cushion them.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you notice changes to your nails. They can give you advice or arrange for you to see a podiatrist for foot care advice if needed.
You may gain weight, or your face, ankles and legs may swell. This improves slowly after your treatment has finished. Your doctor may give you drugs to help reduce the swelling.
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
- 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 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.
It is important to drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of non-alcoholic fluid each day to help protect your kidneys.
Call your doctor or the hospital if you notice any blood in your urine (pee).
Effects on the liver
This treatment may affect how your liver works. This is usually mild. You will have blood tests to check how well your liver is working.
Tumour lysis syndrome (TLS)
This treatment may cause cancer cells to die and break down very quickly. When cancer cells break down, it can lead to a sudden release of chemicals into the blood. This is called tumour lysis syndrome (TLS).
Your kidneys can usually keep these chemicals in balance, but they might not be able to cope with very large amounts. The chemical imbalance can affect how well your kidneys work and cause problems with your heart rhythm.
You will have regular blood tests to check the levels of these chemicals.
If you are at risk of TLS, your doctor can give treatment to help prevent it. You may have:
- extra fluids through a drip
- medicines such as rasburicase or allopurinol
Drinking at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluid a day will also help.
Daunorubicin can increase the risk of developing leukaemia years later. This is rare. But the benefits of treatment usually far outweigh this risk. Your doctor can talk to you about this.
Effects on the brain
Rarely, this treatment can affect the brain. It can cause a condition called posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome (PRES). This is sometimes called reversible posterior leukoencephalopathy syndrome (RPLS).
This condition can cause:
- a headache that does not get better
- drowsiness or confusion
- changes in eyesight
- fits (seizures).
If you or other people notice that you have any of these symptoms, it is important to act quickly.
You should either:
- call the 24-hour emergency number the hospital has given you
- go to the hospital straight away.
You should not drive yourself to hospital.
You can make a full recovery from PRES. But it needs to be diagnosed and treated quickly.
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.
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 (covid) 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 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.
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.
You are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment, or for some time after treatment finishes. This is because the drugs could be passed to the baby through breast milk.
Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.
If you have sex in the first few days after this treatment, you should use barrier protection such as a condom or dental dam. This will protect your partner if any of the drug is in your semen or vaginal fluids.
Changes to periods
If you have a period, these may become irregular or stop while you are having this treatment. This may be temporary, but it can sometimes be permanent. Your menopause may start sooner than it would have done. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.
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.
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert health professionals and people living with cancer.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.
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