Bleomycin

Bleomycin is a chemotherapy drug used to treat many different types of cancer.

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

Bleomycin can be given into a vein, as an injection into muscle or as an injection into the tumour. You usually have it as an outpatient or during a hospital stay. Your cancer doctor, nurse or pharmacist will tell you how often you will have it.

Like all chemotherapy drugs, bleomycin 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, nurse or pharmacist 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 bleomycin

Bleomycin is a chemotherapy drug used to treat many different types of cancer. 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.

Bleomycin can also be used to treat a condition where fluid builds up between the layers covering the lungs. This is called a pleural effusion. To treat a pleural effusion, the doctor injects bleomycin into the space between the layers to stop the fluid building up again. This information is not about the use of bleomycin for a pleural effusion.


How bleomycin is given

You will be given bleomycin in the chemotherapy day unit or during a stay in hospital. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. Bleomycin 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 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 drug can be given:

  • through a short thin tube the nurse puts into a vein in your arm or hand (cannula)
  • through a fine tube that goes under the skin of your chest and into a vein close by (central line)
  • through a fine tube that is put into a vein in your arm and goes up into a vein in your chest (PICC line).
  • as an injection into a muscle
  • as an injection into the tumour.

Your nurse will give you bleomycin as a slow injection or drip (infusion) into your cannula or line. This will take about 30 minutes.

If you are having bleomycin as an injection into a muscle, your chemotherapy nurse will give it to you. They will explain more about this.

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.

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. If you are also having treatment with other cancer drugs, you may 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) for more detailed information.


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:

Flu-like symptoms

Bleomycin may cause flu-like symptoms, such as:

  • feeling hot or cold and/or shivery
  • a headache
  • aching.

If you have this, tell your nurse or doctor straight away.

You may have these symptoms while the drug is being given or several hours after. Your nurse will tell you if this is likely to happen. They may advise you to take paracetamol. Drinking plenty of fluid will also help. Your nurse may give you a drug before your chemotherapy to reduce the risk of these symptoms happening.

If the symptoms are severe or do not improve after 24 hours, contact the hospital.

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.

Problems at the injection site

Bleomycin can be given as an injection into a muscle. Sometimes it causes redness and swelling where it is given (injection site). This can be uncomfortable. To reduce the irritation, your nurse will change the injection site each time you have an injection. They can also give you advice on how to relieve any discomfort.


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.

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.

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.

Your skin may darken during treatment. Occasionally, bleomycin causes scratch-like streaks to appear on the skin. 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 prescribe 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Effects on the lungs

You may have tests to check your lungs before and during treatment. Tell your doctor if you develop:

  • a cough
  • wheezing
  • a fever (high temperature)
  • breathlessness

You should also tell them if any existing breathing problems get worse.

After treatment with bleomycin, breathing higher doses of oxygen for several hours can cause lung problems. If you need to have a general anaesthetic or oxygen therapy in the future, always tell the doctor that you have had bleomycin.

Scuba diving is not recommended after treatment with bleomycin.

Headaches

This treatment may cause headaches. If this happens, tell your doctor or nurse. They can give you painkillers.

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


Other information

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 vitamins, herbal drugs and complementary therapies.

Contraception

Your doctor will advise you not to get pregnant or father a child while having this treatment. The drugs may harm the developing baby. It is important to use effective contraception during your treatment.

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 father a child. 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 chemotherapy 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.