Last Modified: August 21, 2011
Classification: Antineoplastic Antibiotic
The way bleomycin works is not fully understood. It is thought to interfere with cell reproduction and growth, reducing the number of cancer cells in the body.
Bleomycin is given by intravenous (into a vein) infusion, intramuscular (into a muscle) or subcutaneous (under the skin) injections. It can be given alone or in combination with other drugs.
There are a number of things you can do to manage the side effects of Bleomycin. 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:
Bleomycin can cause fever, with or without chills, in some patients. You will be given acetaminophen (Tylenol®) prior to your treatment to prevent this. If you do experience fever or chills, let your doctor or nurse know.
Bleomycin may cause serious lung problems, particularly after repeated treatments or when high doses have been received. There is a lifetime maximum dose of this medication due to the potential for lung problems, which can include pneumonitis (inflammation of lung tissue) and pulmonary fibrosis (scarring and stiffening of the lung tissue). These problems can develop up to 6 months after treatment is completed and may be more common in people with pre-existing lung conditions. You may have breathing tests (pulmonary function tests) performed periodically. Call your physician right away if you have shortness of breath, cough, wheezing or difficulty breathing.
An allergic reaction presenting as rash, itching, redness, hives and/or difficulty breathing may occur up to 12 hours after receiving the treatment. If needed, medications are given to counteract these effects. If you experience any of these effects, notify your doctor or nurse right away.
Your fingernails/toenails may become dark, brittle or fall off. You may notice dry skin or changes in the color or tone of your skin. Your skin will be more sensitive to the sun, which can result in severe sunburn or rash. Sun sensitivity can last even after chemotherapy is completed. Avoid the sun between 10-2pm, when it is strongest. Wear sunscreen (at least SPF 15) everyday, wear sunglasses and long sleeves/pants to protect your skin. Keep your fingernails and toenails clean and dry. You may use nail polish, but do not wear fake nails. Notify your doctor or nurse if any nails fall off. For more suggestions, read the Nail and Skin Care Tip Sheet.
This medication can also cause 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.
Certain cancer treatments can cause sores or soreness in your mouth and/or throat. Notify your doctor or nurse if your mouth, tongue, inside of your cheek or throat becomes white, ulcerated or painful. Performing regular mouth care can help prevent or manage mouth sores. If mouth sores become painful, your doctor or nurse can recommend a pain reliever.
Read the mouth ulcer tip sheet for more information.
Your hair may become thin, brittle, or may fall out. This typically begins two to three weeks after treatment starts. This hair loss can be all body hair, including pubic, underarm, legs/arms, eyelashes, and nose hairs. The use of scarves, wigs, hats and hairpieces may help. 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. Read more on alopecia.
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.
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.