Mitomycin and fluorouracil (5FU) with radiotherapy
Mitomycin and fluorouracil (5FU) with radiotherapy is used to treat anal cancer and muscle-invasive bladder cancer.
On this page
This information is about a chemotherapy treatment called mitomycin and fluorouracil (5FU), when it is given with radiotherapy. When chemotherapy and radiotherapy are given together, it is called chemoradiation.
Sometimes mitomycin and 5FU are given without radiotherapy.
Your doctor will talk to you about this treatment and its possible side effects before you agree (consent) to have treatment.
The drugs used
There are two drugs in this treatment:
In this information we call fluorouracil by its more common name, 5FU.
You will be given mitomycin and 5FU 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, 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.
You start the chemotherapy and radiotherapy on the same day. Radiotherapy is then given once a day, Monday to Friday, for 4 to 7 weeks. The number of weeks depends on the type of cancer you have. You will have chemotherapy during the first week of your treatment, and again in week 4 or 5.
On the first day of treatment
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).
Side effects while mitomycin is being given
Your nurse gives you mitomycin as an injection directly into your cannula or line, with a drip (infusion) to flush it through. Some people might have side effects while they are being given mitomycin 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 stinging, pain, redness or swelling around the vein or if it feels uncomfortable around where the drip goes in.
If you get any of these symptoms after you get home, contact the doctor or nurse straight away on the number they gave you.
After the mitomycin, you have 5FU. This is usually given through a small pump, which the nurse connects to your central or PICC line. You wear the pump on your belt or carry it in a bag. It gives the drug slowly over 4 to 5 days.
Your chemotherapy nurse will explain how to look after the pump. They will also explain what to do if there is a problem.
If you have a cannula, you stay in hospital while you have 5FU through a drip over 4 to 5 days.
After the 5FU is started, you go to the radiotherapy department to have your first radiotherapy treatment. Often you can have radiotherapy in the same hospital and on the same day as you have chemotherapy. But you may need to have chemotherapy at one hospital, then go to a different hospital the next day to have radiotherapy.
Most people have 5FU through a pump and can go home after the first radiotherapy treatment. But if you have a cannula, you will stay in hospital until the 5FU is finished. You will still have radiotherapy each day while you are in hospital.
Before you go home, the nurse or pharmacist will give you anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs to take. They may also give you anti-diarrhoea or other tablets to help with other side effects. Take all your tablets exactly as they have explained to you.
The next days and weeks
You come back to the hospital for radiotherapy each weekday, for 4 to 7 weeks. The number of weeks depends on the type of cancer you have. When the 5FU pump is empty, you go to the chemotherapy day unit and the nurse will disconnect it, or a district nurse will disconnect the pump for you at home.
Week 4 or 5 of treatment
In week 4 or 5 of radiotherapy, the nurse will connect a 5FU pump to your line again for 4 to 5 days. You have this done at the chemotherapy day unit. Again, when the 5FU pump is empty, you go to the chemotherapy day unit and the nurse will disconnect it, or a district nurse will disconnect the pump for you at home.
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.
Radiotherapy also causes side effects. We have more information about the possible side effects of radiotherapy and how to manage them.
You may also have some side effects that we haven’t 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, nurse or pharmacist can explain the risk of these side effects to you.
Rarely, fluorouracil (5FU) can cause severe or life-threatening side effects in people who have low levels of an enzyme called DPD. This is called DPD deficiency. You will not know before you start treatment whether you have DPD deficiency as there are no symptoms.
There are tests available which detect most cases of DPD deficiency, but not all cases. If you have DPD deficiency, this can affect the treatments that are available for you. Testing is available in some areas through the NHS. Some cancer centres across the UK will test all new patients.
Talk to your cancer doctor about the risk of you having DPD deficiency before you start treatment. You can ask what your options are if the test is not available through the NHS in your area.
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.
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.
This treatment may cause severe 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.
Your hospital team may give you anti-diarrhoea drugs to take at home.
If you have diarrhoea or a mild increase in stoma activity:
- follow any advice from your cancer team 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 4 times in a day
- you have a moderate or severe increase in stoma activity
- the anti-diarrhoea drugs do not work within 24 hours.
You may need to go to hospital to have fluids through a drip.
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.
Chemotherapy may affect your skin and nails. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what to expect. If your skin feels dry, try using an unperfumed moisturising cream every day.
During treatment and for several months afterwards, you will be more sensitive to the sun and your skin may burn more easily than usual. You can still go out in the sun, but use a suncream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. You should also cover up with clothing and a hat. Your skin may darken during treatment. It will return to its normal colour when treatment finishes.
Radiotherapy can cause a skin reaction in the area being treated. The skin may redden or get darker. It may also become dry, flaky and itchy. Towards the end of treatment, the skin sometimes becomes moist and sore. Depending on the area treated there may be breaks in the skin, especially around the anus and groin.
Always tell your doctor or nurse about any skin changes. They can give you advice and may prescribe creams or medicines to help. Any changes to your skin are usually temporary and improve when treatment finishes.
Soreness and redness of palms of hands and soles of feet
This is called palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome. Your doctor or nurse can give you advice and 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. It will start to get better when treatment ends.
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 kidneys
This treatment can affect how your kidneys work. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment.
Sometimes mitomycin can cause a kidney problem called haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS). This is very rare but it can be serious. Tell your doctor if you feel tired and breathless, or if you have any bruising or bleeding you cannot explain.
You will have blood tests during treatment to check how well your kidneys are working. If your doctor thinks you have HUS, they will start you on treatment straight away.
It is important to drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluids a day to help protect your kidneys.
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 nervous system
5FU can affect the nervous system. This is rare. Contact the hospital straight away if you develop any of the following:
- mood changes (such as feeling excitable or agitated)
- difficulty with speech, balance, movement or coordination.
Your doctor or nurse will assess you. They will give you treatment if needed.
This treatment may make your eyes feel sore, red and itchy (conjunctivitis). Your doctor will prescribe eye drops to help prevent this. It is important to use these as you are told to.
This treatment 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.
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.
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 may be advised to wait a few weeks until after radiotherapy before having sex. This is to allow any inflammation and side effects to settle. Ask your doctor or nurse for advice on this, as it can vary.
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.