Fludarabine is also known as Fludara®. It is used to treat some types of leukaemia and some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Fludarabine (Fludara®) is used to treat:
- chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL)
- acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)
- some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
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.
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.
Pain along the vein
If you have fludarabine through a drip it can cause pain at the place where the tube goes into 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. You may get 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.
This treatment may cause headaches. If this happens, tell your doctor or nurse. They can give you painkillers.
Build-up of fluid
This treatment may cause your ankles and legs to swell. This is due to fluid building up. Tell your doctor or nurse if this happens, as there are medicines that can help. If the swelling is uncomfortable, they may give you support stockings to wear. The swelling gets better after your treatment ends.
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.
Fludarabine may cause blurry vision or eye pain. Always tell your doctor or nurse if you have eye pain or notice any change in your vision. Your eyes may also become more sensitive to light.
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.
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.
Effects on the nervous system
Sometimes, fludarabine can affect the nervous system. You may feel anxious or restless, have problems sleeping or mood changes. Some people feel drowsy or confused. Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you notice any of these symptoms. It is important not to drive or operate machinery if you notice these effects.
Raised levels of uric acid (tumour lysis syndrome)
This treatment may cause the cancer cells to break down quickly. This releases uric acid (a waste product) 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, which is called gout.
Your doctor may give you drugs to help prevent this. Drinking at least 2 litres (3 ½ pints) of fluid a day will also help. You will have regular blood tests to check the uric acid levels.
Effects on the kidneys
This treatment can affect how your kidneys work. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment. 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 fluids each day to help protect your kidneys.
Changes in the way the liver works
Chemotherapy 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.
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.
After treatment with fludarabine, any blood and platelets you are given should first be treated with radiation. 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 and 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:
- 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 become pregnant or to make someone pregnant during treatment. This is because the drugs may harm a developing baby. It is important to use effective contraception during, and for 6 months after chemotherapy. You can talk to your doctor or nurse about this.
If you have sex during this course of chemotherapy, you need to use a condom. This is to protect your partner in case there is any chemotherapy in semen or vaginal fluids.
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.
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 for you to have chemotherapy.
You will see a doctor or nurse 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 pharmacist will prepare your chemotherapy. Your nurse will tell you when your treatment is likely to be ready.
Fludarabine can be given into a vein or as tablets. You usually have it for 5 days in a row, every 4 weeks. It can be given in combination with other cancer drugs. You usually have a course of several cycles of treatment over a few months. Your nurse or doctor will discuss your treatment plan with you. They may give you a copy of the treatment plan to take home with you.
Your nurse or pharmacist may also give you anti-sickness drugs and other medicines to take home. Take all your capsules or tablets exactly as they have explained to you.
Fludarabine into a vein
You will be given fludarabine in the chemotherapy day unit or during a stay in hospital. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. Your nurse usually gives you anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs before the chemotherapy. Fludarabine can be given:
- 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).
The nurse may give fludarabine slowly with a syringe. Or they may give it as a drip (infusion) over about 30 minutes.