Gemcitabine and nab-paclitaxel (Abraxane®)

Gemcitabine and nab-paclitaxel (Abraxane®) is a combination chemotherapy treatment. It is best to read this information with our general information about chemotherapy and the type of cancer you have. 

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

More information about this treatment

This information is correct at time of publishing. But sometimes the types of cancer this treatment is used for, or treatment side effects, may change between revision dates.

You can talk to your cancer team if you want more detailed information about this treatment. Or visit the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website, which has patient information leaflets (PIL) for individual drugs.

How gemcitabine and nab-paclitaxel is given

You will be given gemcitabine and nab-paclitaxel 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
  • 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 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 may have the chemotherapy drugs through: 

  • a cannula – a short, thin tube the nurse puts into a vein in your arm or hand
  • 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.

Your course of chemotherapy

You may have a course of several cycles of treatment over a few months. Each cycle usually takes 28 days (4 weeks). Treatment is usually given on days 1, 8 and 15 of each cycle. 

You have the chemotherapy as a drip (infusion). Nab-paclitaxel is usually given first. Each drip takes about 30 minutes. 

Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will talk to you about how the treatment will be given. They may give you a copy of a treatment plan to take home.

About side effects

We explain the most common side effects of this treatment here. We also include some that are less common.

You may get some of the side effects we mention, but you are unlikely to get all of them. And you may have some side effects, including rarer ones, that we have not listed here. 

Always tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about any side effects you have. They can give you: 

  • drugs to help control some side effects
  • advice about managing side effects. 

It is important to take any drugs exactly as explained. This means they will be more likely to work for you. 

Serious and life-threatening side effects

Some cancer treatments can cause serious side effects. Sometimes, these may be life-threatening. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can explain the risk of these side effects to you.

Contact the hospital

Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will give you 24-hour contact numbers for the hospital. If you feel unwell or need advice, you can call at any time of the day or night. Save these numbers in your phone or keep them somewhere safe.

Side effects while treatment is 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 or sick
  • 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, they can treat it quickly. 

Sometimes a reaction happens a few hours after treatment. If you develop any of these signs or feel unwell after you get home, contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour number.

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

This treatment can cause pain:

  • at the place where the drip (infusion) is given 
  • along the vein. 

If you feel pain, tell your nurse straight away. 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 your white blood cell count is low, you may be more likely to get an infection. A low white blood cell count is 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. If you have any of the following symptoms, contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour number:

  • a temperature above 37.5°C  
  • a temperature below 36°C 
  • you feel unwell, even with a normal temperature
  • you have symptoms of an infection.

Symptoms of an infection include:

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

It is important to follow any specific advice your cancer treatment team gives you.

Your white blood cell count 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, brown or purple spots that may look like a rash – these spots can be harder to see if you have black or brown skin. 

If you have any unexplained bruising or bleeding, contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour number. 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 feel:

  • very low in energy
  • breathless 
  • dizzy and light-headed. 

If you have these symptoms, contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour number. You may need treatment for anaemia. 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, nurse or pharmacist will prescribe anti-sickness drugs to help prevent or control sickness. Take the drugs exactly as they tell you to, even if you do not feel sick. It is easier to prevent sickness than to treat it after it has started.

If you feel sick, take small sips of fluid often and eat small amounts regularly. It is important to drink enough fluids. If you continue to feel sick, or if you are sick (vomit) 1 to 2 times in 24 hours, contact the hospital on the 24-hour number as soon as possible. They will give you advice. They may change your anti-sickness treatment. Let them know if you still feel sick.

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 ends. Try to pace yourself and plan your day so you have time to rest. Gentle exercise, like short walks, can help you feel less tired. 

If you feel sleepy, do not drive or use machinery.

Dizziness

Nab-paclitaxel can cause dizziness (vertigo). Tell your doctor or nurse if this happens. Do not drive or operate machinery if you feel dizzy.

Headaches

This treatment may cause headaches. If you have headaches, tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist. They can give you advice about painkillers that may help. Tell them if the headache does not get better, or gets worse.

Hair loss

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.

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

If you want to cover up hair loss, there are different ways to do this. Your nurse can give you information about coping with hair loss. Remember to protect your skin from the sun. Use suncream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 on your scalp. Or cover up with a hat or scarf.

Hair loss is usually temporary. Your hair will usually grow back after treatment ends. Very rarely, hair may not grow back. Or it may grow back thinner than before. If you are worried about this, talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist.

Diarrhoea

This treatment may cause severe diarrhoea. Diarrhoea means passing more stools (poo) than is normal for you, or having watery or loose stools. If you have a stoma, it will be more active than usual. 

Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist may give you anti-diarrhoea drugs to take at home. 

If you have diarrhoea or a mild increase in stoma activity, follow their advice about: 

  • taking anti-diarrhoea drugs 
  • how much and what type of fluids to drink 
  • any changes to your diet that might help. 

Contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour number if:

  • you have diarrhoea at night 
  • you have uncomfortable stomach cramps
  • you have diarrhoea 4 or more times in a day 
  • you have a moderate increase in stoma activity 
  • the anti-diarrhoea drugs do not work within 24 hours.

You may need to give a stool sample, or go to hospital to have fluids through a drip or antibiotics.

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 on the 24-hour number for advice. They can give you drugs called laxatives to help. 

If you have not been able to pass stools for over 2 days and are being sick, contact the 24-hour number straight away. 

Changes to your taste

Some foods may taste different or have no taste. Try different foods to find out what tastes best to you. You may also get a bitter or metallic taste in your mouth. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can give you advice. It might help to try:

  • sucking sugar-free sour or boiled sweets
  • eating cold foods
  • eating sharp-tasting fresh fruit.

Taste changes usually get better after treatment ends. We have more information about coping with changes to taste.

Loss of appetite

This treatment can affect your appetite. Don’t worry if you do not eat much for 1 or 2 days. But if your appetite does not come back after a few days, or if you are losing weight, tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist. 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.

Contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour number, if:

  • a sore mouth or throat affects how much you can drink or eat 
  • your mouth, tongue, throat or lips have any blisters, ulcers or white patches. 

They can give you advice, and mouthwash or medicines to help with the pain or to treat any infection. Follow their advice and make sure you:

  • drink plenty of fluids
  • avoid alcohol and tobacco
  • avoid food or drinks that irritate your mouth and throat.

Numb or tingling hands or feet (peripheral neuropathy)

This treatment may affect the nerves in your fingers and toes. This can cause numbness, tingling or pain in your hands or feet. This is called peripheral neuropathy. You might find it hard to do fiddly tasks such as fastening buttons or tying shoelaces.

If you have these symptoms, always tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist. They sometimes need to change the drug or the dose of the drug. The symptoms usually improve slowly after treatment ends. But for some people they continue and are a long-term side effect of treatment.

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, nurse or pharmacist. They can give you painkillers and advice. They can also tell you if any of the painkillers you usually take are suitable. 

If you have muscle or joint pain, try:

  • placing a heat pad or covered hot water bottle against the painful area
  • taking warm baths
  • planning your activities to include regular rests.

Skin changes

This treatment may affect your skin. It may cause a rash, which might 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. 

Rarely, a more serious skin condition can develop. You may have a skin rash which then blisters, and your skin can peel. You need to contact the hospital immediately if this happens.

Always tell your doctor or nurse about any changes to your skin. They can give you advice and may prescribe creams or medicines to help. Skin changes usually improve when treatment finishes.

Fluid build-up

This treatment may cause a build-up of fluid. 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.

Fluid build-up

This treatment may cause a build-up of fluid. You may gain weight, or your face, ankles and legs may swell. Tell your doctor or nurse if you notice any swelling in these areas. They may give you drugs to help reduce the swelling.

Tummy pain

You may get pain or discomfort in your tummy (abdomen), feel bloated or have indigestion or wind. Your doctor can give you drugs to help improve these symptoms. Tell them if the pain does not get better.

Rarely, this treatment may cause inflammation of the bowel (colitis) and pancreas (pancreatitis). Contact your doctor straight away if you:

  • have severe pain in your tummy
  • are vomiting
  • have blood or mucus in your bowel motion
  • have a fever.

Anxiety and mood changes

Nab-paclitaxel can affect the nervous system. You may:

  • feel anxious or restless
  • have problems sleeping
  • experience mood changes.

Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you notice any of these symptoms.

Effects on the kidneys

This treatment can affect how the kidneys work. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment ends. You will have blood tests to check how well your kidneys are working. Contact the hospital on the 24-hour number if you:

  • have blood in your urine (pee) 
  • are passing less urine or peeing less often than usual.

Drinking fluids helps protect your kidneys. The advice is usually to try to drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluid each day. But follow any advice from your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about how much is right for you.

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.

Low levels of potassium

Nab-paclitaxel can sometimes affect the levels of potassium in your blood. You will have regular blood tests and your doctor may prescribe supplements to take if the levels are too low.

Less common side effects

Effects on the lungs

This treatment can cause inflammation of the lungs. This is called pneumonitis. Contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour number if you notice any of these changes during treatment or after it ends:

  • breathlessness
  • a cough that does not go away
  • wheezing
  • a fever, with a temperature over 37.5°C.

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

Changes in blood pressure

This treatment may cause low or high blood pressure. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have ever had any problems with your blood pressure. Your nurse will check your blood pressure regularly during treatment. Let them know if you feel dizzy or have any headaches.

Effects on the heart

This treatment can affect how the heart works. You may have tests to check 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 the hospital straight away on the 24-hour number if you have any of these symptoms during or after treatment:

  • breathlessness
  • dizziness
  • changes to your heartbeat
  • swollen feet and ankles.

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

Always call 999 if you have:

  • chest pain, pressure, heaviness, tightness or squeezing across the chest
  • difficulty breathing.

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 eye drops.

Nab-paclitaxel may also cause blurry vision. Always tell your doctor or nurse if you have pain in your eyes or notice any change in your vision.

Nail changes

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. These changes usually disappear as the nails grow out after treatment. Sometimes nails can become loose or fall out.

If the skin around your nails becomes sore and swollen, contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour number. These might be signs of an infection.

Tips to look after your nails:

  • Keep your nails clipped short and clean. 
  • Avoid using very hot water when washing your hands or bathing.
  • Moisturise your nails and cuticles regularly.
  • Avoid false nails, gels or other acrylics during treatment – it is okay to use water-based nail polish. 
  • Wear gloves to protect your nails when working in the house or garden.
  • If your toenails are affected, wear well-fitting shoes, or shoes with open toes to cushion them.

Tell your doctor or nurse about any changes to your nails. They can give you advice or arrange for you to see a podiatrist. They are a foot care specialist.

Other information

Blood clot risk

Cancer and some cancer treatments can increase the risk of a blood clot. Contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour number if you have any of these symptoms during or after treatment:

  • throbbing pain or swelling in a leg or arm
  • reddening of the skin in the area – if you have black or brown skin, this can be harder to notice, but the skin might become darker
  • suddenly feeling breathless or coughing.

Always call 999 if you have:

  • chest pain
  • difficulty breathing.

A blood clot is serious, but it can be treated with drugs called anticoagulants. These thin the blood. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can give you more information about preventing and treating blood clots.

Alcohol

Gemcitabine may contain alcohol. If having alcohol is a problem for you, tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist. Your blood alcohol level may be above the legal limit after you have the treatment. Do not drive or operate machinery for a few hours after having this treatment, even if you feel okay. Tell the nurse, pharmacist or doctor if you notice any effects of the alcohol after having this treatment.

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

It is possible that small amounts of chemotherapy may be passed on through vaginal fluids or semen. If you have sex during this treatment, your cancer team will usually advise using condoms or a dental dam to protect your partner.

Contraception

Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will advise you not to get pregnant or make someone pregnant while having this treatment and for some time afterwards. The drugs may harm a developing baby. It is important to use contraception to prevent pregnancy. Follow their advice about:

  • what types of contraception to use 
  • how long after treatment you should continue to use contraception. 

Breastfeeding

You are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment, or for some time after treatment ends. This is because the drugs could be passed to the baby through breast milk. 

Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can give you more information.

Vaccinations

Doctors usually recommend that people with cancer have vaccinations for flu and for coronavirus (covid). These help reduce your risk of serious illness from these infections. Most people can have these vaccines, including people with weak immune systems.

If your immune system is weak, you should not have live vaccinations. Live vaccines can make you unwell because they contain a very weak version of the illness they will protect you against. Live vaccines include Zostavax®, which is a shingles vaccine, and the yellow fever vaccine.

It is important to ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist for advice about having vaccinations. They can explain what vaccines are right for you and when it is best to have them.

Medical and dental treatment

If you need medical treatment for any reason other than cancer, always tell the healthcare professional that you are having cancer treatment. Give them the contact details for your cancer doctor or cancer team so they can ask for advice.

If you have appointments with a dentist, always tell them you are having cancer treatment. Talk to your cancer team before you have any dental treatment.

Other medicines

Some medicines can affect how this treatment works or be harmful while you are having it. Always tell your cancer doctor, nurse or pharmacist about any drugs you are taking or planning to take, such as: 

About our information

  • Reviewers

    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.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

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  • use illustrations to explain text
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We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

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Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 July 2023
|
Next review: 01 July 2025
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.