Pemetrexed is used to treat non-small cell lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma. Pemetrexed can be used on its own. It can also be given with either cisplatin or carboplatin. It can sometimes be given with an immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab.
Your cancer doctor will talk to you about this treatment and its possible side effects before you agree (consent) to have treatment.
Before you start pemetrexed, you will be given medicines to help reduce side effects. These medicines include:
- B12 injections the week before your first treatment and then with every 3rd treatment
- folic acid tablets daily starting 5 days before treatment until 3 weeks after the last treatment – only take the folic acid tablets your cancer doctor has prescribed for you
- steroid tablets starting the day before treatment and for 2 days when you have pemetrexed to reduce the risk of skin side effects.
Always take your tablets exactly as explained to you by the nurse or pharmacist.
You will be given pemetrexed in the chemotherapy day unit or during a stay in hospital. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. Pemetrexed can be given in combination with other cancer drugs.
During a course of treatment, you usually see a:
- cancer doctor
- chemotherapy nurse or a specialist nurse
- specialist pharmacist.
This is who we mean when we mention doctor, nurse or pharmacist in this information.
Before or on the day of each treatment, a nurse or person trained to take blood (phlebotomist) will take a blood sample from you. This is to check that your blood results are at a safe level 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 usually have a course of several cycles of treatment over a few months. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will discuss your treatment plan with 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. 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, nurse or pharmacist can give you drugs to help control some side effects. It is important to take them exactly as your doctor, nurse or pharmacist tells you. This means the drugs will be more likely to work for you.
Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist 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.
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 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, it can be treated quickly.
Sometimes a reaction happens a few hours after treatment. If you develop any signs or feel unwell after you get home, contact the hospital straight away.
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 sometimes called neutropenia.
Your doctor may give you antibiotics and other drugs to try to stop you getting an infection. These are called prophylactic medicines.
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. Contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour contact number you have been given 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
- your temperature goes below 36°C (96.8°F).
Symptoms of an infection include:
- feeling shivery and shaking
- a sore throat
- a cough
- needing to pass urine (pee) a lot, or discomfort when you pass urine.
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, 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:
- bleeding gums
- heavy periods
- blood in your urine (pee) or stools (poo)
- tiny red or purple spots on the skin that may look like a rash.
Tell your doctor if you have any unexplained bruising or bleeding. 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 have symptoms such as:
- pale skin
- lack of energy
- feeling breathless
- feeling dizzy and light-headed.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have these symptoms.
If you are very anaemic, you may need a drip to give you extra red blood cells. This is called a blood transfusion.
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 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 use machinery.
Your doctor will give you anti-sickness drugs to help prevent or control sickness during your treatment. 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 often and eat small amounts regularly. It is important to drink enough fluids. If you continue to feel sick, or are sick (vomit) more than once in 24 hours, contact the hospital as soon as possible. They will give you advice. Your doctor or nurse may change the anti-sickness drug to one that works better for you.
Changes to your taste
You may get a bitter or metal taste in your mouth. Sucking sugar-free sweets may help with this. Some foods may taste different or have no taste. Try different foods to find out what tastes best to you. Taste changes usually get better after treatment finishes. Your nurse can give you more advice.
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.
If your mouth or throat 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 and throat.
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.
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 for advice. Your doctor can give you drugs called laxatives to help.
This treatment can make you feel dizzy or unsteady. Let your doctor know if this happens. If you feel dizzy, do not drive.
Chemotherapy may affect your skin. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what to expect.
Pemetrexed can cause a rash, which may be itchy. If your skin feels dry, try using an unperfumed moisturising cream every day. If you have had radiotherapy recently or in the past, the area that was treated may become red or sore.
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 get better when treatment finishes.
Rarely, a much more serious skin condition can develop. You may have a skin rash that blisters, and your skin can peel. If this happens, contact the hospital straight away.
Numb or tingling hands or feet (peripheral neuropathy)
This treatment may affect 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.
Your hair may get thinner. But you are unlikely to lose all the hair from your head. Hair loss usually starts after your first or second treatment. It is almost always temporary, and your hair will usually grow back after treatment finishes. Your nurse can talk to you about ways to cope with hair loss.
Changes in the way the kidneys and liver work
Pemetrexed can affect how your kidneys and liver work. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment. You will have blood tests before chemotherapy. This is to check how well your kidneys and liver are working.
Your eyes may become watery or feel dry and irritated. They may also become sore, red and inflamed (conjunctivitis). You may notice swelling of your eyelids. Tell your doctor if you have any of these symptoms. You may need eye drops.
Build-up of fluid
Effects on the heart
This treatment can affect how the heart works. You may have tests to see 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 your doctor straight away on the 24-hour number the hospital has given you if you have any of these symptoms during or after treatment:
- pain or tightness in your chest
- changes to your heartbeat.
Other conditions can cause these symptoms, but it is important to get them checked by a doctor. If you cannot get through to your doctor, call the NHS urgent advice number on 111.
Effects on the lungs
Pemetrexed can sometimes cause changes to the lungs in people who have had radiotherapy to their chest. Always 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.
During this treatment, you may:
- get pain or discomfort in your tummy (abdomen)
- feel bloated
- have indigestion or wind.
Your doctor can give you drugs to help improve these symptoms. Tell them if the pain does not get better.
Sometimes these problems can be more serious. If you have severe pain, blood in your stools (poo) or a fever, contact your doctor straight away.
Blood clot risk
Cancer and some cancer treatments can increase the risk of a blood clot. Symptoms of a blood clot include:
- throbbing pain, redness or swelling in a leg or arm
- suddenly feeling breathless or coughing
- sharp chest pain, which may be worse when you cough or take a deep breath.
If you have any of these symptoms, contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour contact number you have been given. If you cannot get through to your doctor, call the NHS urgent advice number on 111.
A blood clot is serious, but it can be treated with drugs that thin the blood (anticoagulants). Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.
You can help reduce the risk of developing a blood clot by:
- staying active during treatment
- drinking plenty of fluids, especially water.
You may be given anticoagulants to help prevent a clot.
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 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 (covid) 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 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.
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.
You are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment, or for some time after treatment finishes. This is because the drugs could be passed to the baby through breast milk.
Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.
Pemetrexed contains sodium (salt). Talk to your doctor if you are on a low sodium diet.
If you have sex in the first few days after this treatment, you should use barrier protection such as a condom or dental dam. This will protect your partner if any of the drug is in your 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 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.
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.
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