| Last Modified: August 21, 2011
Etoposide works by inhibiting DNA synthesis in cancer cells. Because DNA is essential for cells to grow and reproduce, etoposide slows or stops the growth of cancer cells in your body.
How to Take Etoposide
Etoposide is given by intravenous (into a vein) infusion, over a short period (30-60 minutes) or in a continuous infusion over 24 hours. It can also be given my mouth in the form of a capsule. The dosage and schedule is determined by the person's size, type of cancer, and mode of administration. It can be given alone or with other drugs.
Even when carefully and correctly administered by trained personnel, this drug may cause feeling of burning and pain. There is a risk that this drug may leak out of the vein at the injection site, resulting in tissue damage. If the area of injection becomes red, swollen, or painful at anytime during or after the injection, notify your doctor or nurse immediately. Do not apply anything to the site unless instructed by your doctor or nurse.
Possible Side Effects of Etoposide
There are a number of things you can do to manage the side effects of Etoposide. Talk to your doctor or nurse about these recommendations. They can help you decide what will work best for you. These are some of the most common side effects:
Low White Blood Cell Count (Leukopenia or Neutropenia)
White blood cells (WBC) are important for fighting infection. While receiving treatment, your WBC count can drop, putting you at a higher risk of getting an infection. You should let your doctor or nurse know right away if you have a fever (temperature greater than 100.4 F), sore throat or cold, shortness of breath, cough, burning with urination, or a sore that doesn't heal.
Tips to preventing infection:
For more suggestions, read the Neutropenia Tip Sheet.
Low Red Blood Cell Count (Anemia)
Your red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen to the tissues in your body. When the red cell count is low, you may feel tired or weak. You should let your doctor or nurse know if you experience any shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or pain in your chest. If the count gets too low, you may receive a blood transfusion. Read the anemia tip sheet for more information.
Low Platelet Count (Thrombocytopenia)
Platelets help your blood clot, so when the count is low you are at a higher risk of bleeding. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have any excess bruising or bleeding, including nose bleeds, bleeding gums or blood in your urine or stool. If your platelet count becomes too low, you may receive a transfusion of platelets.
Read the thrombocytopenia tip sheet for more information.
Lowering of Blood Pressure
Blood pressure may drop while this medication is being infused. When receiving this medication through a vein, your nurse will be checking your blood pressure before and during the infusion. It may become necessary to stop the administration of this medication or slow down the infusion rate if your blood pressure drops.
Nausea and/or Vomiting
Take anti-nausea medications as prescribed. If you continue to have nausea or vomiting, notify your doctor or nurse so they can help you manage this side effect. In addition, dietary changes may help. Avoid things that may worsen the symptoms, such as heavy or greasy/fatty, spicy or acidic foods (lemons, tomatoes, oranges). Try antacids, (e.g. milk of magnesia, calcium tablets such as Tums), saltines, or ginger ale to lessen symptoms. Read the Nausea & Vomiting Tip Sheet for more suggestions.
Call your doctor or nurse if you are unable to keep fluids down for more than 12 hours or if you feel lightheaded or dizzy at any time.
Sexual and Reproductive Changes
This drug can affect your reproductive system, resulting in the menstrual cycle or sperm production becoming irregular or stopping permanently. Women may experience menopausal effects including hot flashes and vaginal dryness - read more about coping with vaginal dryness. In addition, the desire for sex may decrease during treatment.
Exposure of an unborn child to this medication could cause birth defects, so you should not become pregnant or father a child while on this medication. Effective birth control is necessary during treatment, even if your menstrual cycle stops or you believe your sperm is affected. You may want to consider sperm banking or egg harvesting if you may wish to have a child in the future. Discuss these options with your oncology team. See OncoLink's section on sexuality for helpful tips for dealing with these side effects.
Loss or thinning of scalp and body hair (alopecia)
In rare cases hair may become thin, brittle, or fall out. The use of scarves, wigs, hats and hairpieces may help. You may want to use a soft hairbrush and a gentle or baby shampoo to avoid stress on your hair. Avoid hair dyes, perms, bleaches or hair spray. Hair generally starts to regrow soon after treatment is completed. Remember your hair helps keep you warm in cold weather, so a hat is particularly important in cold weather or to protect you from the sun.
Decrease in Appetite
Other Side Effects
This medication can also cause a "radiation recall". This is redness, swelling or blistering of the skin in an area that was previously treated (even years ago) with radiation. The goal of "treatment" for radiation recall is to manage the symptoms until it heals. Topical steroids or anti-inflammatory agents or cool compresses may help. Avoid sun exposure and tight fitting clothes that would rub on the area.
There is a slight risk of developing leukemia or other type of cancer due to treatment with this medication. This is most often associated with repeated treatments or high doses.
Some patients report a metallic taste during the infusion that may continue after treatment. Learn more about coping with taste changes on OncoLink.