What is E-CMF?

E-CMF is used to treat breast cancer. It is best to read this information with our general information about chemotherapy and breast cancer
E-CMF is named after the initials of the drugs used for treatment. The drugs are:

In this information, we call fluorouracil by its more common name – 5FU.

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

How E-CMF is given

You will be given E-CMF in the 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 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 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.

The chemotherapy drugs 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 gives you the chemotherapy into your vein with a drip to flush it through. Sometimes cyclophosphamide is given as tablets. Your nurse will explain which is the most suitable for you.

Your course of chemotherapy

You usually have a course of several cycles of treatment over a few months.

E-CMF is usually divided into 2 parts. First, you will have 4 doses of epirubicin over a few months. Then you will have the CMF treatment in the following months.

E-CMF can be given in different ways. We describe 2 ways you might have it. Your doctor or nurse will be able to give you details of your treatment course.

Schedule A

On the first day, you have epirubicin. You then have a rest period with no chemotherapy for 3 weeks. At the end of the 3 weeks, you start your second cycle of epirubicin. This is exactly the same as the first cycle. You have 4 cycles of epirubicin.

You start CMF treatment after you have completed the 4 cycles of epirubicin. On the first day, you have cyclophosphamide, methotrexate and 5FU. You will have these drugs again a week later. You then have a rest period with no chemotherapy for 3 weeks. At the end of the 3 weeks, you start a second cycle of CMF. You have 4 cycles of CMF.

Schedule B

On the first day, you have epirubicin. You then have a rest period for 3 weeks. At the end of the 3 weeks, you start your second cycle of epirubicin. This is the same as the first cycle. You have 4 cycles of epirubicin.

You start CMF treatment after you have completed the 4 cycles of epirubicin. On the first day, you start a 2 week course of cyclophosphamide tablets. On the same day, you have methotrexate and 5FU. One week later, you have methotrexate and 5FU again.

At the end of the 2 week course, you have a rest period with no chemotherapy for 2 weeks. After the rest period, you start the next cycle of CMF treatment. Each cycle lasts 4 weeks.

Taking your chemotherapy tablets

If you are having cyclophosphamide as tablets, always take them exactly as you have been told. This is important to make sure they work as well as possible for you. Swallow the tablets whole, with a full glass of water. They should not be chewed or crushed. Take them early in the day. Take them at the same time every day.

If you forget to take the capsules or tablets, you should take the missed dose as soon as possible, within the same day. If a full day has gone by, let your doctor or nurse know. Do not take a double dose unless your doctor tells you to.

Other things to remember about your capsules:

  • 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 capsules or tablets, contact the hospital. Do not take another dose.
  • If your treatment is stopped return any unused capsules or tablets to the pharmacist.

Going home

The nurse or pharmacist will also give you anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs to take at home. They may also give you anti-diarrhoea tablets if you need them. Take all your tablets exactly as they have explained to you.

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.

You may also 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.

Rarely, fluorouracil (5FU) can cause severe side effects in people who have low levels of an enzyme called DPD. This is called having a DPD deficiency. You will not know before you start treatment whether you have a DPD deficiency as there are no symptoms. There is a test available but it only tests for the more common types of DPD deficiency. This means that the test will detect most cases of DPD deficiency but not all cases. The test is not widely available on the NHS. Talk to your doctor if you are worried about having a DPD deficiency.

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) to download a Patient Information Leaflet (PIL) for these drugs. The leaflet lists all known side effects.

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.

The drug leaks 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
  • swelling around the vein.

If you get any of these symptoms after you get home, contact the doctor or nurse straight away. You should use the number they gave you.

Pain along the vein

You may get pain at the place where the injection 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.

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.

G-CSF (granulocyte-colony stimulating factor) is a type of drug called a growth factor. It encourages the body to make more white blood cells.

Your doctor may give you G-CSF:

  • if the number of white blood cells is very low
  • to stop the number of white blood cells getting low.

You have it as a small injection under the skin.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Diarrhoea

This treatment may cause severe diarrhoea. Your nurse or doctor may give you anti-diarrhoea drugs to take at home.

If you have diarrhoea:

  • follow any advice you have been given 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 6 times in a day
  • the anti-diarrhoea drugs do not work within 24 hours.

Some people may need to go to hospital to have fluids through a drip. You may need to take antibiotics.

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 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.

Scalp cooling is a way of lowering the temperature of your scalp to help reduce hair loss. Your nurse can tell you if this is an option for you.

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.

Skin changes

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 cause a rash, which may be itchy.

During treatment, and for several months afterwards, you will be more sensitive to the sun. Your skin may burn more easily than usual. You can still go out in the sun, but cover up with clothing and a hat. Use a sun cream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and at least four or five UVA stars. 

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 become red or sore.

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.

Sore and red hands and feet

This treatment may cause soreness and redness of the palms of hands and soles of the feet. This is called palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome. It gets better when treatment ends. Your doctor or nurse can give you advice and creams to improve the symptoms. It can help to:

  • keep your hands and feet cool
  • use an unperfumed moisturiser on your hands and feet every day
  • avoid tight-fitting socks, shoes and gloves.

Tell your nurse about any changes in your hands or feet.

Eye problems

This treatment may make your eyes feel sore, red and itchy (conjunctivitis). Your doctor will prescribe eye drops to help prevent this. Your pharmacist will tell you how to use your eye drops. It is important to follow their advice.

It may also make your eyes more sensitive to light and cause blurry vision. If you have pain or notice any change in your vision, always tell your doctor or nurse.

Bladder irritation

Cyclophosphamide may irritate your bladder and cause discomfort when you pee (pass urine). Make sure you drink plenty of fluids during the 24 hours following chemotherapy. Try to drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints).

It is also important to empty your bladder regularly and try to pass urine as soon as you feel the need to go.

Contact the hospital straight away if:

  • you feel any discomfort or stinging when you pass urine
  • if you notice any blood in your urine
  • you are having problems passing urine.

Discoloured urine

Epirubicin may make your urine a pink-red colour for up to 48 hours after you have had your treatment.

Less common side effects

Effects on the heart

Chemotherapy can affect the way the heart works. You may have tests to see how well your heart is working. These may be done before, during and sometimes after treatment. If the treatment is causing heart problems, your doctor can change the type of chemotherapy you are having.

Contact a doctor straight away if you:

  • have pain or tightness in your chest
  • feel breathless or dizzy
  • feel your heart is beating too fast or too slowly.

Other conditions can cause these symptoms, but it is important to get them checked by a doctor.

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.

Changes in the way the liver works

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

It is important to tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you feel unwell or have severe side effects. This includes any side effects we do not mention here.

Effects on the lungs

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

  • a cough
  • wheezing
  • a fever (high temperature)
  • breathlessness.

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

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 and food

Some medicines can affect chemotherapy or be harmful when you are having it. This includes medicines you can buy in a shop or chemist. Tell your cancer doctor about any medicines you are taking, including vitamins, herbal drugs and complementary therapies.

It is important to avoid eating grapefruit or drinking grapefruit juice during your course of chemotherapy. This is because a chemical in grapefruit can affect how well the treatment works or can make side effects worse.

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 and for at least a year afterwards. The drugs may harm the developing baby. It is important to use effective contraception.

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 a woman, your periods may become irregular or stop. This may be temporary, but for some women it is permanent. Your menopause may start sooner than it would have done.

There may be ways to preserve fertility for men and women. If you are worried about fertility, it is important to talk with your doctor before you start treatment.

Sex

If you have sex on the days you have chemotherapy (this includes cyclophosphamide tablets) or in the first few days after you need to use a condom. This is to protect your partner in case there is any chemotherapy in semen or vaginal fluid.

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.

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