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Chemotherapy for Children

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to treat cancer cells. Chemotherapy has been used for many years and is one of the most common treatments for cancer. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell's ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used alone for some types of cancer or in combination with other treatments, such as radiation or surgery. Often, a combination of chemotherapy drugs is used to fight a specific cancer. Certain chemotherapy drugs may be given in a specific order depending on the type of cancer it's being used to treat.

While chemotherapy can be quite effective in treating certain cancers, chemotherapy drugs reach all parts of the body, not just the cancer cells. Because of this, there may be many side effects during treatment. Being able to anticipate these side effects can help you and your child prepare and, in some cases, prevent these symptoms from occurring.

How is chemotherapy administered?

Chemotherapy can be given:

  • As a pill to swallow

  • As an injection into the muscle or fat tissue

  • Intravenously (directly to the bloodstream through a vein; also called IV)

  • Topically (applied to the skin)

  • Directly into a body cavity

What are some of the chemotherapy drugs and their potential side effects?

The following table lists some of the chemotherapy drugs commonly used in children and some of the side effects. However, each child may experience symptoms differently and at different times of the treatment. Some side effects may occur early on (days or weeks) and some side effects may occur later (months or years) after the chemotherapy has been given. The side effects listed aren't all the possible problems that may occur. Always consult your child's doctor if your child is feeling anything unusual.

Chemotherapy drug

Side effects (short-term and long-term)

L-asparaginase, Elspar--usually given IV; also can be given as an injection (a shot into muscle or skin)

  • Drowsiness can occur during and continue for several weeks after treatment

  • Nausea, vomiting, and cramping

  • Allergic reaction: rash or increased breathing effort 

  • Problems with blood clotting system (disseminated intravascular coagulation)

Busulfan, Myleran--usually given orally

  • Fatigue, tiredness

  • Decreased appetite

  • Hair loss (reversible)

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Decrease in blood cell counts

Carboplatin (Paraplatin)--usually given IV

  • Decrease in blood cell counts

  • Hair loss (reversible)

  • Dizziness

  • Darkened skin coloration

  • Ringing in ears and hearing loss

  • Kidney damage

Cisplatin (cisplatinum, Platinol, Platinol-AQ)--usually given IV

  • Decrease in blood cell counts

  • Allergic reaction: rash and increased breathing effort

  • Nausea and vomiting that usually occurs for about 24 hours

  • Ringing in ears and hearing loss

  • Fluctuations in blood electrolytes

  • Kidney damage

Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan, Neosar)--can be given IV or orally (by mouth)

  • Nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain

  • Decreased appetite

  • Sore mouth and taste changes

  • Diarrhea

  • Hair loss (reversible)

  • Bladder damage

Cytarabine (Ara-C, cytosine arabinoside, Cytosar-U)--usually given IV and/or intrathecally (into the spinal column)

  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

  • Decreased appetite

  • Decrease in blood cell counts

  • Fever and flu-like symptoms

Daunorubicin (Cerubidine), doxorubicin (Adriamycin PFS, Adriamycin RDF, Rubex)--usually given IV

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Hair loss (reversible)

  • Red colored urine (not bleeding but a drug effect)

  • Decrease in blood cell counts

Etoposide (VePesid, VP-16)--may be given orally or IV, teniposide (Vumon)--usually given IV

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Hair loss (reversible)

  • Decrease in blood cell counts

  • Low blood pressure

  • Decreased appetite

  • Diarrhea

Hydroxyurea (Hydrea)--usually given orally

  • Decrease in blood cell counts

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea

Mercaptopurine (6-MP, Purinethol)--usually given orally

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Decreased appetite

  • Tiredness and weakness

  • Decrease in blood cell counts

Methotrexate (MTX)--may be given IV, intrathecally (into the spinal column), or orally (by mouth)

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Decrease in blood cell counts

  • Diarrhea

  • Skin rashes

  • Dizziness, headache, or drowsiness

Thioguanine (6-TG)--usually given orally

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Decreased appetite

  • Decrease in blood cell counts (after several weeks)

Thiotepa (Thioplex, Tepa)--usually given IV, intrathecally (directly into the spinal column), may be instilled in bladder, or injected into the tumor

  • Loss of appetite

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Hair loss (reversible)

  • Decrease in blood cell counts

  • Temporary or permanent sterility (inability to have children)

Topotecan (Hycamtin)--given IV

  • Muscle achiness

  • Nausea and vomiting

Vincristine (Oncovin)--usually given IV, vinblastine (Velban, Velbe)--usually given IV

  • Weakness

  • Loss of reflexes

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Hair loss (reversible)

  • Diarrhea or constipation, abdominal cramping

  • Decrease in blood cell counts

Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 2/5/2014
© 2000-2014 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.