Carmustine (BCNU, BiCNU®)

OncoLink
Last Modified: August 21, 2011

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Pronounced: CAR-mus-teen
Classification: Alkylating Agent

About Carmustine

Carmustine exerts its anti-cancer affect by a process called alkylation. Alkylation damages the DNA of cells, which prevents them from dividing, and causes them to die. Since cancer cells, in general, divide faster and with less error correcting than healthy cells, cancer cells are more sensitive to this damage.

How to Take Carmustine

Carmustine is most often given through intravenous (into a vein) infusion. The dosage depends on the person's size and the tumor type being treated. It can be given as a single dose or divided doses over a number of weeks and can be given alone or with other drugs.

Carmustine also comes in the form of a wafer (called Gliadel wafer), which is placed into a surgical cavity after the removal of a brain tumor. The medication remains in the area around the wafer, therefore these patients are not at risk for the following side effects.

Possible Side Effects of Carmustine

There are a number of things you can do to manage the side effects of Carmustine. 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:

  • Washing hands, both yours and your visitors, is the best way to prevent the spread of infection.
  • Avoid large crowds and people who are sick (i.e.: those who have a cold, fever or cough or live with someone with these symptoms).
  • When working in your yard, wear protective clothing including long pants and gloves.
  • Do not handle pet waste.
  • Keep all cuts or scratches clean.
  • Shower or bath daily and perform frequent mouth care.
  • Do not cut cuticles or ingrown nails. You may wear nail polish, but not fake nails.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse before scheduling dental appointments or procedures.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse before you, or someone you live with, has any vaccinations.

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 nosebleeds, bleeding gums or blood in your urine or stool. If your platelet count becomes too low, you may receive a transfusion of platelets.

  • Do not use a razor to shave (an electric razor is fine).
  • Avoid contact sports and activities that can result in injury or bleeding.
  • Do not take aspirin (salicylic acid), non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) such as Motrin®, Aleve®, Advil®, etc. as these can all increase the risk of bleeding. Unless your healthcare team tells you otherwise, you may take acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  • Do not floss or use toothpicks and use a soft-bristle toothbrush to brush your teeth.

Read the thrombocytopenia tip sheet for more information.

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.

Nail and Skin Changes

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.

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.

Lung Changes

Carmustine may cause serious pulmonary fibrosis (a scarring and stiffening of the lung tissue), particularly when high doses have been received. These problems can develop months to years 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.

Liver Changes

Your doctor may order some blood tests to check your liver function. Call your doctor or nurse immediately if you have abdominal pain, if you pass dark urine, or if your skin or the white of your eyes become jaundiced (yellow in color).

Kidney Changes

Your doctor may order blood tests to check your kidney function. Try to drink at least 6-8 glasses of fluid a day. Call your doctor or nurse if you don't urinate for more than 12 hours.


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