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Ovacome is a national charity providing advice and support to women with ovarian cancer.  We give information about symptoms, diagnosis, treatments and research. 

Ovacome also runs a telephone and email support line and works to raise awareness and give voice to all those affected by ovarian cancer.

This fact sheet gives information about the chemotherapy drugs commonly used to treat women who have ovarian cancer.

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What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that can be used to kill cancer cells. There are many different chemotherapy drugs that are used for different cancers.  They work in various ways, but often attack the cancer cell structures and DNA to stop or control the disease.

Chemotherapy drugs are used to treat ovarian cancer that has spread. These drugs are carboplatin and paclitaxel (Taxol) in the first instance (called first line treatment).

If the cancer comes back it may be treated again with the same drugs, or it may be treated with other drugs such as liposomal doxorubicin (Caelyx). These drugs are given through an intravenous drip in the hand or arm.

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What chemotherapy will I need?

The chemotherapy you will be offered depends on how far your ovarian cancer has spread, this is the staging, and how active the cancer is, this is the grading.  If your cancer is at stage 1a and grade 1 or 2 then you will probably be not be recommended to have chemotherapy.

If your cancer is at stage 1a and grade 3, or at stage 1c then you will probably be offered carboplatin on its own.

Cancers which have spread further to stage 2, 3 and 4 will probably need treatment with carboplatin and Taxol. These are given one after the other (usually Taxol first then carboplatin) in a chemotherapy clinic session.

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Having treatment

When you are ready to start your chemotherapy treatment you will be given an appointment at the chemotherapy day unit.  You will be asked to give a blood sample, or this may have been done a day or two before. This is to check that your kidneys are working well and to check your white and red blood cell levels.  The blood test should not be done more than three days before your chemotherapy appointment as this may not give you enough time to recover from your last session.

On the day of your appointment you will see a doctor or a nurse before the treatment starts and they will ask you about your recent health.  If the blood results are safe for treatment your chemotherapy drugs will be prepared for you.

The nurse will put a cannula (a short thin tube) into your vein and inject anti-sickness drugs through it and also steroids, unless you were given steroid tablets to take at home.  The nurse will then set up your chemotherapy drip, which goes through the cannula into your blood stream.  If you are having Taxol this will be given first and takes about three hours to go through.  It will be followed by carboplatin which usually takes about an hour.

When the drip has finished you can go home.  This process is described as a cycle or session of chemotherapy.  You will be given more anti-sickness drugs and steroids to take home with you and instructions on how to take them.

Very occasionally chemotherapy may cause an allergic reaction while it is being given.  Signs of this happening are:

  • A rash
  • Itching
  • Looking flushed
  • Being short of breath
  • Swelling of the face or lips
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Abdominal, back or chest pain
  • Feeling unwell

If you experience any of these symptoms while you are being given chemotherapy, tell the nurse immediately.  You may then be given drugs to prevent the reaction, the flow rate of the chemotherapy may be slowed down, the session may be delayed or the chemotherapy stopped.

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Chemotherapy side effects

All drugs have side effects, but that doesn’t mean they will affect you.  Side effects can be mild so severe, they may improve during the treatment – or get worse.  More side effects may develop as your treatment progresses.

Side effects may depend on how many times you have had the drug before, your health and the drug dosage.  Tell your doctor if a side effect is severe, and ask for help to manage it.

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Possible side effects of carboplatin, Taxol and Caelyx

  • A drop in the number of white blood cells, making you prone to infections – call the hospital if your temperature goes up to 38 degrees centigrade.
  • A drop in red blood cells causing tiredness and breathlessness – you may need a transfusion
  • Bruising caused by a drop in the number of platelets in your blood
  • Nausea and sickness – these can be controlled by anti-sickness medicines
  • Kidney or liver changes – this is detected by the blood tests before your treatment. Your kidneys and liver usually recover after treatment
  • Your periods may stop
  • Your fertility may be damaged or lost
  • Diarrhoea and/or constipation – if you experience these contact your medical team for advice.
  • Numbness and/or tingling in fingers and toes – this affects about four per cent (four in 100) women using carboplatin and 30 to 80 per cent (three to eight in 10) women using Taxol. For three to 15 per cent (three to 15 per 100) of these women it can be severe.  It may get worse immediately after treatment but usually resolves during the following year. Contact your medical team for advice.
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of taste and smell
  • A sore mouth – this can be helped by using mouthwash and a soft toothbrush, you can use mouthwash with a local anaesthetic (Difflam).

Treatment with Carboplatin

Carboplatin is a platinum based drug which attacks cancer cells by damaging the DNA.  It has been used for many years as an effective treatment for ovarian cancer and some other cancers too.

It is often given in a 21 day cycle. That means you will have a carboplatin chemotherapy session every 21 days, usually for six cycles.

Like all drugs, carboplatin has benefits and risks, which include side effects.  Most patients fell well on the day they receive their chemotherapy and on the next day too. They are more likely to experience side effects on the second and third days after treatment.  Your medical team can give you medication to help.

Side effects that are experienced by between 10 per cent (one in 10) and one percent (one in 100) of women using carboplatin are:

  • Hair thinning (but not usually complete hair loss)
  • Loss of hearing high pitch sound (this is usually temporary)
  • Ringing in the ears

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Treatment with Taxol

Taxol is the brand name for paclitaxel.  It is made from the needles of the yew tree.  It was first discovered in the 1960s and is an effective chemotherapy drug that has been used to treat ovarian cancer and other cancers. It works by stopping cancer cells from dividing into new cells and spreading.

Taxol is given with carboplatin to women with ovarian cancer at stage 2, 3 or 4 meaning that the cancer has spread or is at a later stage. Cancers at these later stages are more likely to recur and Taxol is used to control the cancer and maximise the time between any recurrences.  It is usually given in cycles of 21 days.

It is given through a drip into the bloodstream and is usually given before carboplatin.  In the chemotherapy unit, before you receive Taxol, you will be given a steroid injection or steroid tablets plus an antihistamine injection to minimise any allergic reaction you may have to the drug.  You will also be given medicine to stop heartburn.

 

Taxol side effects

Like all drugs, Taxol has side effects.  These are side effects that more than 10 per cent (10 in 100) women will experience.

  • Aching joints (which affect s 60 per cent of women (six in 10) starts a couple of days after treatment and lasts about five days)
  • Mild allergic reactions (such as a rash or redness on the face affecting 34 per cent of women more than 3 in 10)
  • Hair loss (usually temporary and can affect all body hair, regrowth starts when treatment ends)

Some other less common Taxol side effects are experienced by one per cent to 10 per cent of women (between 1 in 10 to 1 in 100 women). These are:

  • Redness, swelling or leaking around the site of the drip (tell the nurse immediately!)
  • Skin rashes and nail changes

There are other much less common side effects that fewer than one per cent (one in 100) of women will get:

  • Abdominal pain including feeling bloated or having wind in indigestion
  • Low blood pressure
  • Blood clots (tell the nurse if you have redness, pain or swelling I your legs, chest pain of breathlessness
  • Changes to your heartbeat , it may feel irregular or slow (tell your medical team, it is usually temporary but can be permanent in a very few people)
  • Muscle weakness in the arms hands and legs
  • Itching
  • A high temperature – over 38 degrees centigrade
  • Lung changes that can cause coughing and breathlessness
  • Swelling in the arms and legs caused by fluid build –up
  • Headaches
  • Hearing or sight disturbances
  • Dizziness or fitting
  • Severe skin reaction (wear sun protection on your hands and feet during treatment)
  • Changes in your finger or toe nails

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Caelyx

Caelyx can be given in combination with carboplatin instead of Taxol.  It your ovarian cancer becomes resistant to platinum based drugs such as carboplatin, you may be offered Caelyx on its own or in combination with other drugs as an alternative to carboplatin.

Platinum resistance is generally defined as when ovarian cancer comes back less than six months after carboplatin treatment ended. 

This indicates that the cancer is resistant to platinum drugs so they won’t work effectively.

Caelyx was originally developed from anti-cancer compounds found in soil based microbes.  Caelyx is the brand name of liposomal doxorubicin, also known as Myocet and Doxil.  It works by attacking ovarian cancer cells’ DNA and stopping it from creating new cells and spreading.

Caelyx comes in the form of a bright red liquid that is given through a drip into the bloodstream using a cannula.  It is usually given every four weeks for between four and eight cycles.  Each treatment takes from 60 to 90 minutes to go through.  The red colour means your urine may be red or pink for around 48 hours after treatment.

Before you are given Caelyx you will have blood tests to check your levels of  red and white blood cells and platelets, plus your liver and kidney function.  Your blood pressure will be taken and your heart may be checked using an ECG (electrocardiogram).  This is to make sure you are well enough to have the treatment.

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Caelyx side effects

More than 10 per cent (one in 10) women using Caelyx will experience one or more of these more common side effects:

  • PPE (palmer-planter erythrodysaethesia) is a redness, soreness and peeling on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. It affects about 45 per cent (45 in 100) women. You can present and help to treat this by keeping cool and avoiding heat and hot water, some women hold ice packs during treatment;  don’t wear gloves, socks or tight shoes; don’t rub your skin and avoid vigorous exercise.  Your nurse can advise you on suitable creams to take care of your skin.  Tell your nurse if you see signs of PPE.
  • Sores in the throat that make it painful to swallow (tell your doctor or nurse)
  • Weight loss
  • Hair loss (this is usually temporary).

Between one per cent and 10 per cent (1 in 100 to 10 in 100) will experience these less common Caelyx side effects:

  • Watery or sore eyes or blurred vision
  • Heart muscle damage (this usually recovers when treatment ends. Your heart will be checked before each session)
  • Sensitivity to the sun (stay in the shade and use protection until several months after treatment ends)
  • Itchy inflamed skin
  • Abdominal pain
  • Thrush (fungal infection) in the mouth (easily treated with solution and pastilles)
  • Cold sores
  • Sleeplessness
  • Dizziness
  • Bone muscle or joint pain
  • Swollen legs, hands and arms caused by a build - up of fluid
  • Nail changes
  • Sore tongue

Less than one per cent (one in 100) experience the following rare Caelyx side effects:

  • Confusion
  • Lung changes (tell your doctor if you develop a cough, wheezing, breathlessness or if existing breathing problems get worse.

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Caring for yourself when you are having chemotherapy

There are steps you can take to help yourself while you are having chemotherapy by watching for any signs of infection,  reporting any symptoms promptly to your  medical team and protecting yourself from risks of infection.

Chemotherapy suppresses the immune system and so carries a risk of infection. Contact your hospital immediately if you develop signs of infection such as headaches, sore throat, cough, pain in urination, rashes, aches, shakes and shivers.  Also contact them if your temperature rises to 38 degrees centigrade.

Protect yourself by avoiding people with obvious infections, avoid crowded places, live vaccines and some foods such as soft cheeses.

If you are having treatment from a doctor or a dentist that is not to do with your cancer always tell them that you are having, or have had, chemotherapy.

Only your oncologist can make decisions about your chemotherapy.  Any other clinicians must contact your chemotherapy unit to discuss any treatment that may affect your chemotherapy.

Tell your oncologist if you are thinking of using complementary or alternative treatments as some may affect your chemotherapy.

If you would like more information on the sources and references for this fact sheet, or you would like to discuss anything about ovarian cancer, please phone our support line on 0800 008 7054 Monday to Friday between 10am and 5pm.

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Reviewed by

Dr Cathy Hughes

Consultant Nurse Gynaecology/Oncology & Deputy Divisional Director of Nursing (Gynaecology and Reproductive Medicine)

Women’s, Children’s and Clinical Support

Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust

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Disclaimer:

Ovacome factsheets are designed to provide information, advice and support about ovarian cancer to health care professionals, patients and the public. Whilst Ovacome makes every attempt to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information contained in the factsheet, it is not a formal legal document. The information provided is accurate at the time of printing; please take into account the fact that medical research is constantly changing. The information provided here is not a substitute for professional medical care. If you suspect you have cancer you should consult your doctor as quickly as possible. Ovacome cannot accept liability for any inaccuracy via third party information from sources to which we link.

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v.1

Date: June 2019

Date for review: June 2021

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