EC chemotherapy

EC is a combination treatment used to treat breast cancer.

It is best to read this information with our general information about chemotherapy and the type of cancer you have.

EC is given into a vein. You usually have it as an outpatient. Your cancer doctor, nurse or pharmacist will tell you how often you will have it.

EC can cause side effects. Some of the side effects can be serious, so it is important to read the detailed information below.

Your healthcare team can give you advice on how to manage any side effects. Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you:

  • have a temperature
  • feel unwell
  • have severe side effects, including any we do not mention here.

Rarely, side effects may be life-threatening. Your cancer doctor or nurse can explain the risk of these side effects to you.

If you need medical attention for any reason other than cancer, always tell the healthcare staff that you are having this treatment.

What is EC?

EC is used to treat breast cancer. It may sometimes be used to treat other cancers. It is best to read this information with our general information about chemotherapy and the type of cancer you have. EC is named after the initials of the chemotherapy drugs used. They are:


How EC is given

You will be given EC in the chemotherapy day unit. 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.

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).

Your nurse will give you:

  • epirubicin (a red fluid) as an injection directly into your line, along with a drip (infusion) of fluids to flush it through
  • cyclophosphamide (a colourless fluid) either as an injection directly into your line, along with a drip to flush it through, or as a short infusion.

It takes about an hour to have these drugs.

Your course of EC chemotherapy

You will have chemotherapy as a course of several cycles (or sessions) of treatment over a few months.

Each cycle of EC takes 21 days (three weeks).

On the first day, you will have epirubicin and cyclophosphamide. After this, you will have a rest period for the next three weeks.

After the rest period, you will start your second cycle of EC. This is exactly the same as the first cycle. Your doctor or nurse will tell you the number of cycles you are likely to have.

PICC lines and central lines playlist

Watch our short animated videos about having PICC lines and central lines put in.

PICC lines and central lines playlist

Watch our short animated videos about having PICC lines and central lines put in.


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.

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 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) to download a Patient Information Leaflet (PIL) for these drugs. The leaflet lists all known side effects.

Chemotherapy

This video provides a brief overview of chemotherapy treatment, how it can be given, how it works and possible side effects.

About our cancer information videos

Chemotherapy

This video provides a brief overview of chemotherapy treatment, how it can be given, how it works and possible side effects.

About our cancer information videos


Side effects while treatment is being 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 
  • a skin rash
  • itching
  • shivering
  • 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

Epirubicin 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.

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.

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


Common side effects

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

If you have diarrhoea, contact the hospital for advice. Try to drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluids every day. It can help to avoid alcohol, caffeine, milk products, high-fat foods and high-fibre foods.

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.

Hair loss

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.

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 almost always temporary and your hair will usually grow back after treatment ends.

Bladder irritation

Cyclophosphamide may irritate your bladder and cause discomfort when you pass urine (pee). Drink plenty of fluids – at least 2 litres (3 ½ pints) – during the first 24 hours following chemotherapy. It is important to empty your bladder often. You should try to pass urine as soon as you feel the need to go. Contact the hospital straight away if you:

  • find it difficult to pass urine
  • feel any discomfort or stinging when you pass urine
  • notice blood in your urine.

Red urine

Epirubicin may turn your urine a pink-red colour after you have had your treatment. This may last for up to 48 hours. It is not harmful.

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.

A photo of Stuart talking about neutropenic sepsis

Neutropenic sepsis

Stuart talks about he how coped with neutropenic sepsis, an infection which can be a side effect of chemotherapy.

About our cancer information videos

Neutropenic sepsis

Stuart talks about he how coped with neutropenic sepsis, an infection which can be a side effect of chemotherapy.

About our cancer information videos


Less common side effects of EC

Effects on the heart

This treatment 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 treatment 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.

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 every day.

Epirubicin can cause a rash, which may be itchy. The skin over the vein used for the injec-tion may become discoloured. If you have lighter skin, it may darken. If you have darker skin you may develop lighter patches. If you have had radiotherapy (either 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 give you creams or medicines to help. Any changes to your skin are usually temporary and improve when treatment finishes.

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.

Second cancer

EC 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.


Other information about EC

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.

Other medicines

Some medicines can affect chemotherapy or be harmful when you are having it. This includes medicines you can buy in a shop or chemist. 

Tell your cancer doctor about any drugs you are taking, including over-the-counter drugs, complementary therapies and herbal drugs.

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.

Contraception

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.

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.

Breastfeeding

Women are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment and for some time afterwards. 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.