Melphalan is a chemotherapy drug used to treat myeloma, melanoma, sarcoma and ovarian cancer. It may also be used to treat other cancers.
Melphalan is used to treat:
It may sometimes be used to treat other cancers.
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 melphalan in the chemotherapy day unit or during a stay in hospital. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. Melphalan can be given in combination with other cancer drugs.
For myeloma, melphalan is sometimes given as part of high dose treatment with a stem cell transplant.
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. Melphalan 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 can give you melphalan into your cannula or line, either as a slow injection or drip (infusion). They usually run the drip through a pump. This gives you the treatment over a set time.
Melphalan can also be given:
- as tablets on its own or in combination with other drugs.
- sometimes, directly into a limb to treat soft tissue sarcoma or melanoma that has come back in a limb. This way of giving chemotherapy is called regional chemotherapy.
The side effects of melphalan for regional chemotherapy are different to the side effects of melphalan given into a vein or as tablets. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information about this.
This information is about possible side effects of melphalan given into a vein or as tablets.
Your course of chemotherapy
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. If you are having high dose melphalan you usually only have one treatment.
Taking melphalan as tablets
Your nurse or pharmacist will give you the tablets to take home. Always take them exactly as explained. This is important to make sure they work as well as possible for you.
You should swallow the melphalan tablets whole with a glass of water. They should not be chewed or crushed.
If you forget to take the melphalan, you should take the missed dose as soon as possible within the same day. If a full day has gone by, tell your doctor or nurse.
Do not take a double dose unless your doctor tells you to.
Other things to remember about your tablets:
- Keep them in the original package and store in the fridge.
- Keep them safe and out of sight and reach of children.
- If you are sick just after taking the tablets, contact the hospital. Do not take another dose.
- If your treatment is stopped, return any unused tablets to the pharmacist.
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 been explained to 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
- 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.
Pain along the vein
If you are having melphalan into a vein it can cause 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Changes to blood urea levels
Urea is a waste product made when proteins are broken down in the body. It is usually passed out of the body in pee (urine).
If you have kidney problems, melphalan can increase the level of urea in your blood. This is usually temporary.
Tell your doctor if you have problems with your kidneys before treatment starts. You will have regular blood tests to check your kidneys and the level of urea in your blood.
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 liver
This treatment may affect how your liver works. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment. You will have regular blood tests to check how well your liver is working.
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.
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.
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.
Melphalan given into a vein contains a small amount of alcohol. If this is a problem for you, tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist. Melphalan tablets do not contain alcohol.
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 and for some time afterwards. The drugs may harm the developing baby. It is important to use effective contraception.
Women are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment. This is because the drugs could be passed to the baby through breast milk.
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.
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.
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.
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 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, such as shingles, 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.