ECF is used to treat cancers of the stomach and oesophagus (gullet). 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.
ECF is named after the initials of the chemotherapy drugs used. They are:
Your doctor will talk to you about this treatment and its possible side effects before you agree (consent) to have treatment.
You will be given ECF in the chemotherapy day unit. 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 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 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 epirubicin (a red fluid) as an injection directly into your line, with a drip (infusion) of fluids to flush it through. You then have cisplatin as a drip. They usually run the drip through a pump, which gives you the treatment over a set time. You will have extra fluids through a drip before and after the cisplatin. This is to protect your kidneys.
You will also have 5FU given into your line through a small pump that you carry on a belt or in a holder. The pump is connected to your line for 21 days. You will usually be able to go home once your fluids are finished and the 5FU pump has been connected.
You will need to come back to the hospital on days 8 and 15 to have the pump changed. You will also need to come back on day 21 when it finishes. You then start the next cycle of ECF.
Your course of chemotherapy
Each cycle of ECF takes 21 days (3 weeks).
On the first day, you will have epirubicin and cisplatin. You will also be given the 5FU pump. You will continue to have 5FU for the next 3 weeks.
When you finish your first cycle of ECF, you will start the next cycle. This is the same as the first cycle. Your doctor or nurse will tell you the number of cycles that you are likely to have.
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.
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.
Some people may have side effects while they are being given the treatment or shortly after they have it:
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
- 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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Epirubicin may turn your urine a pink-red colour after you have had your treatment. This may last for up to 48 hours. It is not harmful.
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.
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.
Soreness and redness of palms of hands and soles of feet
This is called palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome. It gets better when treatment ends. Your doctor or nurse may prescribe creams to improve the symptoms. It can help to keep your hands and feet cool and to avoid tight-fitting socks, shoes and gloves.
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.
Cisplatin can affect your hearing. You may have a hearing test before you start treatment. You may get ringing in your ears (tinnitus) and become unable to hear some high-pitched sounds.
Tinnitus usually gets better after treatment ends. Some hearing changes can be permanent. Tell your doctor if you notice any changes in your hearing.
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.
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.
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.
Chemotherapy 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.
Epirubicin can cause a rash, which may be itchy. The skin over the vein used for the injection may become discoloured. If you have lighter skin, it may darken. If you have darker skin you may develop lighter patches. 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.
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.
Your eyes may become watery and more sensitive to light. They may also feel sore. Your doctor can prescribe eye drops to help with this. If your eyes get red and inflamed (conjunctivitis), tell your doctor. This is because you may need antibiotic eye drops.
This treatment can increase the risk of developing a second cancer years later. This is rare. The benefits of treatment usually far outweigh this risk. Your doctor can talk to you 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.
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.
Women are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment. This is because the drugs could be passed to the baby through breast milk.
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.