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About chemotherapy for chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)

Men and women discussing chronic myeloid leukaemia

This page tells you about chemotherapy for chronic myeloid leukaemia. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

About chemotherapy for chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It used to be the standard treatment for newly diagnosed CML. But now biological therapy drugs, such as imatinib and nilotinib, work very well for CML and are the standard treatment. If you can't have biological therapy for some reason, or if the side effects are too great, you may have treatment with chemotherapy. The most common chemotherapy drug is hydroxycarbamide, which used to be called hydroxyurea. You take this as capsules at home. 

Occasionally a drug called busulfan may be used instead of hydroxyurea but this is rare. You also have busulfan as capsules.

High dose chemotherapy

If your CML doesn't respond well to treatment with imatinib, or it stops working, your doctor may suggest intensive treatment with a bone marrow transplant or stem cell transplant. You will need to go into hospital and have high dose chemotherapy drugs through a drip. You will need to stay in hospital for a few weeks at least. We have separate information about stem cell and bone marrow transplants for CML.

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating CML section.

 

 

What chemotherapy is

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. They work by disrupting the growth of cancer cells. The drugs circulate in the bloodstream around the body.

 

Chemotherapy for CML

Chemotherapy used to be the standard treatment for newly diagnosed chronic phase or accelerated phase CML. But now biological therapy drugs, such as imatinib (Glivec) and nilotinib (Tasigna), work very well for CML and are the standard treatment. If you can't have biological therapy for some reason, or if the side effects are too great, you may have treatment with chemotherapy. 

The most common chemotherapy drug for CML is hydroxycarbamide, which used to be called hydroxyurea. You take this as capsules at home.

Occasionally a drug called busulfan (Myleran, Busilvex) may be used instead of hydroxyurea but this is rare. You also have busulfan as capsules.

If you are taking chemotherapy capsules at home, it is important that you take them correctly and store them safely. Follow the instructions from your pharmacist that come with the capsules.

Chemotherapy may be used for the blast phase of CML. The drugs used are the same as for acute myeloid leukaemia. You usually have a combination of chemotherapy drugs given into your bloodstream. You can find out about this in our section about chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukaemia.

 

High dose chemotherapy

If your CML doesn't respond well to imatinib (Glivec) or becomes resistant to it, your doctor may suggest intensive treatment with a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. This can cure some people with CML.

You have to be reasonably fit to have a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. You will need to go into hospital and have high dose chemotherapy through a drip. Because this treatment is quite intensive, you will have a high risk of picking up an infection afterwards. You will need to stay in hospital for a few weeks at least. There is detailed information about bone marrow and stem cell transplants in this section.

 

Dietary or herbal supplements and chemotherapy

We don't yet know much scientifically about how some nutritional or herbal supplements may react with chemotherapy. Some could be harmful. It is very important to let your doctors know if you take any supplements. Or if you are prescribed therapies by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners.

Talk to your specialist about any other tablets or medicines you take while you are having active treatment. There is information about the safety of herbal, vitamin and diet supplements in the complementary therapies section.

Some studies seem to suggest that fish oil preparations may reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs. If you are taking or thinking of taking these supplements, talk to your doctor to find out whether they could affect your treatment.

 

Where to find out more about chemotherapy

We have a general section about chemotherapy, which explains the treatment in detail including

If you would like more information about anything to do with chemotherapy, contact our cancer information nurses. They would be happy to help.

Or you can contact one of the chronic leukaemia organisations. They often have free fact sheets and booklets they can send to you.

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Updated: 20 November 2014