Paclitaxel

Paclitaxel is a chemotherapy drug used to treat different cancers, including ovarian, breast, and non-small cell lung cancer. It may also be used to treat other cancers such as stomach cancer.

What is paclitaxel?

Paclitaxel is used to treat ovarian, breast and non-small cell lung cancer. It may some-times be used to treat other cancers, such as stomach cancer. Paclitaxel can be given on its own or in combination with other chemotherapy drugs.

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.

How paclitaxel is given

You will be given paclitaxel in the chemotherapy day unit or during a stay in hospital. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. Paclitaxel can be given in combination with other cancer drugs.

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 chemo-therapy. 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. They will also give you medicines to prevent an allergic reaction.

You may have steroids as an injection before your treatment. Or you may be given steroid tablets to take the day before your treatment. It is important to take these exactly as the doc-tor or nurse has explained to you. You must tell your doctor or nurse if you have not taken them for any reason.

The chemotherapy drugs can be given through:

  • a short thin tube that 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).

You usually have paclitaxel once every 3 weeks. The treatment takes around 3 hours. Sometimes you may have it once a week depending on your situation. If you are having it weekly, the treatment takes over an hour.

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.

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. 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.

More information

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.

Side effects during treatment

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. Before treatment, you will be given medicines to help prevent or reduce any reaction.

Signs of a reaction can include:

  • feeling hot or flushed
  • a skin rash
  • itching
  • shivering
  • feeling dizzy
  • a headache
  • feeling breathless
  • swelling of your face or lips
  • 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 develop any signs or feel unwell after you get home, contact the hospital straight away.

The drug leaks outside the vein

If the drug leaks outside the vein, it can damage the surrounding tissue. This is called extravasation. Extravasation is not common but if it happens it is important to treat it quickly. Tell your nurse straight away if you have any stinging, pain, redness or swelling around the vein.

If you get any of these symptoms after you get home, contact the doctor or nurse straight away on the contact telephone number they gave you.

Pain along the vein

You may get 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.

Common side effects of paclitaxel

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
  • diarrhoea
  • 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:

  • nosebleeds
  • 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.

Feeling sick

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.

Diarrhoea

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.

Hair loss

You usually 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.

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

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 usually temporary, and your hair will usually grow back after treatment ends. But rarely, the hair loss is permanent. Hair may not grow back or it may be thinner than before. If you are worried about this, talk to your cancer doctor or nurse.

Sore mouth

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

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.

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 so they can give you painkillers. Tell them if the pain does not get better. Having warm baths and taking regular rests may help.

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.

Low blood pressure

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

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.

Skin changes

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.

Very rarely, a much more serious skin condition can develop. You may have a skin rash which then blisters, and your skin can peel. Contact the hospital straightaway if this happens.

Nail changes

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.

Less common side effects of paclitaxel

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 antibiotic eye drops.

Always tell your doctor or nurse if you have pain in your eyes or notice any change in your vision.

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

Treatment can affect the nervous system. You may feel dizzy or unsteady. Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you notice these symptoms. After you go home, it is important not to drive or operate machinery if you notice these effects.

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 improve or if it gets worse.

Other information about paclitaxel

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
  • breathlessness
  • 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.

Alcohol

This treatment contains alcohol. If this 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. It is best not to drive or operate machinery for a few hours after having this treatment, even if you feel okay.

Other medicines

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.

Vaccinations

You should not have some types of vaccinations during, and for a time after, this treatment. Talk to your cancer doctor before having any vaccinations.

Contraception

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.

Breastfeeding

Women are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment. This is because the drugs could be passed to the baby through breast milk.

Fertility

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.

There may be ways to preserve fertility for men and women. If you are worried about fertility, it is important to talk with your doctor before you start treatment

Sex

If you have sex in the first few days after 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.