Chemoradiotherapy for anal cancer
Chemoradiotherapy means having chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment together.
Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. The drugs circulate throughout the body in the bloodstream. Radiotherapy uses high energy waves similar to x-rays to kill cancer cells.
Chemoradiotherapy is the most common treatment for anal cancer if your cancer hasn't spread to other parts of your body. The chemotherapy drugs mostly used with radiotherapy are mitomycin C and fluorouracil (5FU).
This page is about treatment for cancer that hasn’t spread to another part of the body. We have information about chemotherapy for advanced anal cancer.
When you have it
Chemoradiotherapy is the most common treatment for anal cancer if your cancer hasn't spread to other parts of your body. So, you might have it if your cancer is:
- stage 1 to 3 in the anal canal
- stage 2 to 3 in the anal margin
Chemotherapy after surgery
Some people might have low dose chemoradiotherapy after surgery for stage 1 cancer of the anal margin. This is usually when there is a risk that some cancer cells might have been left behind.
Types of chemotherapy
You usually have a combination of chemotherapy drugs with radiotherapy. The most common types of chemotherapy are:
- mitomycin C and fluorouracil (5FU)
- mitomycin C and capecitabine
Check the name of the chemotherapy treatment with your doctor or nurse, then find out about it on our A to Z list of cancer drugs.
How you have chemotherapy
You have mitomycin and fluorouracil into your bloodstream. Capecitabine is a tablet.
Into your bloodstream
You have treatment through a thin short tube (a cannula) that goes into a vein in your arm each time you have treatment.
Or you might have treatment through a long line: a central line, a PICC line or a portacath. These are long plastic tubes that give the drug into a large vein in your chest. The tube stays in place throughout the course of treatment.
Taking your tablets
Speak to your pharmacist if you have problems swallowing the tablets.
Whether you have a full or an empty stomach can affect how much of a drug gets into your bloodstream.
You should take the right dose, no more or less.
Talk to your healthcare team before you stop taking or miss a dose of a cancer drug.
You take some cancer medicines in treatment cycles. This means that you take the drug for a set period of time, followed by a break. For example, you might take a drug every day for a week and then not take it for 2 weeks. This 3 week period in total is one cycle of treatment.
Take your cancer drugs exactly as your doctor, specialist nurse or pharmacist has told you to. The break from treatment is important too. For many cancer drugs, it allows your body to recover.
Where you have chemotherapy
You usually have treatment into your bloodstream at the cancer day clinic. You might sit in a chair for a few hours so it’s a good idea to take things in to do. For example, newspapers, books or electronic devices can all help to pass the time. You can usually bring a friend or family member with you.
You have some types of chemotherapy over several days. You might be able to have some drugs through a small portable pump that you take home.
For some types of chemotherapy you have to stay in a hospital ward. This could be overnight or for a couple of days.
Some hospitals may give certain chemotherapy treatments to you at home. Your doctor or nurse can tell you more about this.
Clare Disney (nurse): Hello, my name is Clare and this is a cancer day unit.
So when you arrive and you’ve reported into with the receptionist, one of the nurses will call you through when your treatment is ready, sit you down and go through all the treatment with you.
Morning, Iris. My name is Clare. I am the nurse who is going to be looking after you today. We’re going to start by putting a cannula in the back of your hand and giving you some anti sickness medication. And then I am going to come back to you and talk through the chemotherapy with you and the possible side effects you may experience throughout your treatment. Is that okay?
Before you have each treatment you’ll need to have a blood test to check your bloods are okay. And you’ll also be reviewed by one of the doctors to make sure you’re fit and well for your treatment. Sometimes you’ll have the blood test taken on the day of your treatment; other times you’ll have it the day before your treatment when you see the doctor.
Each chemotherapy is made up for each individual patient, depending on the type of cancer they have and where it is and depending their height, weight and blood results.
So, depending on where your cancer is some people have their chemotherapy drug, their cancer drug by drip, some will have an injection and other people will have tablets.
So, Iris, your chemotherapy is going to be given to you in what we call cycles and the cycles are given every three weeks for a period of six cycles. So, you will be coming in for approximately five months for your chemotherapy.
Depending on where your cancer is and what type of cancer you have will be dependent on how often you come in for treatment. An example of a treatment cycle would be for you to come in on Day 1, Day 8 and Day 15 then to have a week’s break before you come back again for Day 1 treatment.
Depending on the type of treatment that you are having we will also give you some anti sickness tablets to take alongside your chemotherapy and also some drugs to prevent any reactions if that’s appropriate.
All chemotherapy is given over different time periods so it’s best to check with your nurse about how long you are likely to be in the unit for. This can range from anything up to an hour to an all day treatment slot so please be prepared to bring along some bits to keep you occupied, such as books and music.
So, before you go home it’s important to make sure you have got the tablets you need to go home with your anti sickness medications and any other symptom control tablets that you may require. Also, to make sure that you’ve got the telephone numbers for the oncology unit to phone if you have a temperature or you are experiencing any other symptoms at home that you need to ask advice about.
So, please make sure when you leave the unit that you’ve got all the information you require and if you’ve got any questions at all don’t hesitate to ask the nurse who will be able to answer them for you.
Before your next cycle of treatment you will come in and see the doctor in the clinic room, you’ll have a blood test and an examination to make sure you are fit and well for treatment you will then come back the following day or later on that week for treatment.
On the first day of chemotherapy you also have your first radiotherapy treatment.
You have treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department.
Before you begin treatment, the radiotherapy team work out how much radiation you need. They divide it into a number of smaller treatments. They call each treatment a fraction. At your planning appointment the radiographers might make pen marks or small tattoos on your skin in the treatment area.
Your treatment starts a few days or up to 3 weeks after the planning session. You have radiotherapy from an external machine as a daily treatment, five days a week for around 5 weeks.
Dan (radiographer): Before your treatment starts your doctor will need to work out exactly where the treatment needs to go and also which parts need to be avoided by the treatment. To have radiotherapy you lie in the same position as you did for your planning scans. We then line up the machine based on your tattoo marks. It is really important that you stay very, very still when you are having treatment it is also important to let the radiographers know right at the beginning if you are not comfortable so they can adjust your position.
Radiographer: Ok all done, we’ll be back in a couple of minutes.
Dan (radiographer): We leave the room and control the room from a separate room This is so we aren’t exposed to radiation. Treatment takes a few minutes and you will be able to talk to us using an intercom. We can see and hear you while you are having your treatment and will check that you are ok. When your treatment starts you won’t feel anything; you may hear the machine as it moves around you giving the treatment from different angles. Because we are aiming to give the same treatment to the same part of the body everyday then the treatment process is exactly the same everyday so you shouldn’t notice any difference. You’ll see someone from the team caring for you once a week while you are having treatment they’ll ask how you are and about any side effects.
Patient: They get you from one sitting area to another and then take you into the room where you undress to the waist and then lie down and line you up by either moving you or asking you to shuffle a little and they check the dimensions and they talk to one another and they say I am fine this side how are you ...yes fine...ok, stay where you are Jeff and that was it. There were a few little clicks and lights go on and off and you can see a green laser beam which line sup with certain things on your body uh so no, no real noise and no discomfort.
Before you start chemotherapy
You need to have blood tests to make sure it’s safe to start treatment. You usually have these the day before or on the day you start treatment. You have blood tests before each round or cycle of treatment.
Between 2 and 8 out of 100 people (2 to 8%) have low levels of an enzyme called dihydropyrimidine dehydrogenase (DPD) in their bodies. A lack of DPD can mean you’re more likely to have severe side effects from capecitabine or fluorouracil. It might take you a bit longer to recover from the chemotherapy. These side effects can rarely be life threatening.
Before starting treatment with capecitabine or fluorouracil you have a blood test to check levels of DPD. So you may start treatment with a lower amount (dose) of the drug or have a different treatment. Your doctor or nurse will talk to you about this.
You might have side effects from chemoradiotherapy to the anus. These can be more severe than either radiotherapy or chemotherapy on their own.
The most common side effects are:
- feeling tired
- opening your bowels more often (diarrhoea)
- sore skin around the anus and groin - which can make opening your bowels more painful
Other side effects can include:
- feeling sick
- loss of appetite
- losing weight
- a lower resistance to infections
- bleeding and bruising easily
- hair loss
Side effects depend on:
- which drugs you have
- how much of each drug you have
- how you react
Tell your treatment team about any side effects that you have.
Dietary or herbal supplements and chemotherapy
Let your doctors know if you:
- take any supplements
- have been prescribed anything by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners
It’s unclear how some nutritional or herbal supplements might interact with chemotherapy. They could be harmful.