Coronavirus and cancer

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FEC

FEC is the name of a chemotherapy combination that includes:

  • F – fluorouracil (5FU)
  • E – epirubicin
  • C – cyclophosphamide

It is a treatment to try to stop breast cancer from coming back after surgery and radiotherapy. This is known as adjuvant therapy.

How it works

These chemotherapy drugs destroy quickly dividing cells, such as cancer cells.

How you have it

You have FEC into your bloodstream (intravenously).

Drugs into your bloodstream

You might have treatment through a long plastic tube that goes into a large vein in your chest. The tube stays in place throughout the course of treatment. This can be a:

  • central line
  • PICC line
  • portacath

If you don't have a central line

You might have treatment through a thin short tube (a cannula) that goes into a vein in your arm each time you have treatment.

When you have FEC

You usually have FEC chemotherapy as cycles of treatment. You have each FEC treatment over 3 weeks. This is one cycle. Usually, you have 6 cycles of treatment with FEC. But some people can have up to 8 treatments.

You have all 3 drugs on the first day of each 3 week cycle.

Tests

You have blood tests before and during your treatment. They check your levels of blood cells and other substances in the blood. They also check how well your liver and kidneys are working.

Side effects

We haven't listed all the side effects. It's very unlikely that you will have all of these side effects, but you might have some of them at the same time.

How often and how severe the side effects are can vary from person to person. They also depend on what other treatments you're having. For example, your side effects could be worse if you're also having other drugs or radiotherapy.

When to contact your team

Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will go through the possible side effects. They will monitor you closely during treatment and check how you are at your appointments. Contact your advice line as soon as possible if:

  • you have severe side effects 
  • your side effects aren’t getting any better
  • your side effects are getting worse

Early treatment can help manage side effects better. 

Contact your doctor or nurse immediately if you have signs of infection, including a temperature above 37.5C or below 36C.

Common side effects

Each of these effects happens in more than 1 in 10 people (10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

Risk of infection

Increased risk of getting an infection is due to a drop in white blood cells. Symptoms include a change in temperature, aching muscles, headaches, feeling cold and shivery and generally unwell. You might have other symptoms depending on where the infection is.

Infections can sometimes be life threatening. You should contact your advice line urgently if you think you have an infection. 

Breathlessness

You might be breathless and look pale due to a drop in red blood cells. This is called anaemia.

Bruising and bleeding

This is due to a drop in the number of platelets in your blood. These blood cells help the blood to clot when we cut ourselves. You may have nosebleeds or bleeding gums after brushing your teeth. Or you may have lots of tiny red spots or bruises on your arms or legs (known as petechia).

Tiredness (fatigue)

Tiredness and weakness (fatigue) can happen during and after treatment - doing gentle exercises each day can keep your energy up. Don't push yourself, rest when you start to feel tired and ask others for help.

Hair loss

You could lose all your hair. This includes your eyelashes, eyebrows, underarm, leg and sometimes pubic hair. Your hair will usually grow back once treatment has finished but it is likely to be softer. It may grow back a different colour or be curlier than before. 

Loss of appetite

You might lose your appetite for various reasons when you are having cancer treatment. Sickness, taste changes or tiredness can put you off food and drinks.

Diarrhoea

Contact your advice line if you have diarrhoea, such as if you've had 4 or more loose watery poos (stools) in 24 hours. Or if you can't drink to replace the lost fluid. Or if it carries on for more than 3 days.

Your doctor may give you anti diarrhoea medicine to take home with you after treatment. Eat less fibre, avoid raw fruits, fruit juice, cereals and vegetables, and drink plenty to replace the fluid lost.

Taste changes

Taste changes may make you go off certain foods and drinks. You may also find that some foods taste different from usual or that you prefer to eat spicier foods. Your taste gradually goes back to normal a few weeks after your treatment finishes.

Feeling or being sick

Feeling or being sick is usually well controlled with anti sickness medicines. Avoiding fatty or fried foods, eating small meals and snacks, drinking plenty of water, and relaxation techniques, can all help.

It is important to take anti sickness medicines as prescribed even if you don’t feel sick. It is easier to prevent sickness rather than treating it once it has started.

Mouth sores and ulcers

Mouth sores and ulcers can be painful. Keep your mouth and teeth clean; drink plenty of fluids; avoid acidic foods such as oranges, lemons and grapefruits; chew gum to keep the mouth moist and tell your doctor or nurse if you have ulcers.

Eye problems

Watery eyes is also called excessive tearing or epiphora (pronounced ep-if-or-ah). Tell your doctor or nurse if this is a problem for you. They can prescribe medicines to help. Try to avoid dust, pollen or animal hairs as they can make the watering worse. 

Pink or red urine

This won't harm you. It’s due to the colour of the chemotherapy and lasts for one or two days.

Occasional side effects

Each of these effects happens in more than 1 in 100 people (1%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

  • changes to your heart rhythm
  • skin problems such as brown markings following the line of the vein where you had treatment and an itchy rash
  • ridged and darker nails
  • liver changes that are very mild and unlikely to cause problems
  • redness, swelling or leaking at your drip site
  • an allergic reaction that usually happens during the first or second treatment

Rare side effects

Each of these effects happens in fewer than 1 in 100 people (1%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

  • confusion or unsteadiness
  • urine infections
  • damage to the heart muscle that is usually temporary
  • breathless and cough due to an infection or changes to the lung tissue
  • a second cancer some years after having FEC treatment

Coping with side effects

We have more information about side effects and tips on how to cope with them.

Important information

Other medicines, foods and drink

Cancer drugs can interact with some other medicines and herbal products. Tell your doctor or pharmacist about any medicines you are taking. This includes vitamins, herbal supplements and over the counter remedies.

Pregnancy and contraception

This treatment might harm a baby developing in the womb. It is important not to become pregnant or father a child while you're having treatment and for a few months afterwards. Talk to your doctor or nurse about effective contraception before starting treatment.

Fertility

You may not be able to become pregnant or father a child after treatment with these drugs. Talk to your doctor before starting treatment if you think you may want to have a baby in the future.

Men might be able to store sperm before starting treatment. And women might be able to store eggs or ovarian tissue. But these services are not available in every hospital, so you would need to ask your doctor about this.    

Breastfeeding

Don’t breastfeed during this treatment because the drugs may come through in your breast milk.

Treatment for other conditions

Always tell other doctors, nurses, pharmacists or dentists that you’re having this treatment if you need treatment for anything else, including teeth problems.

Immunisations

Don’t have immunisations with live vaccines while you’re having treatment and for up to 12 months afterwards. The length of time depends on the treatment you are having. Ask your doctor or pharmacist how long you should avoid live vaccinations.

In the UK, live vaccines include rubella, mumps, measles, BCG, yellow fever and the shingles vaccine (Zostavax).

You can:

  • have other vaccines, but they might not give you as much protection as usual
  • have the flu vaccine (as an injection)

Contact with others who have had immunisations - You can be in contact with other people who have had live vaccines as injections. Avoid close contact with people who have recently had live vaccines taken by mouth (oral vaccines) such as the oral typhoid vaccine.

If your immune system is severely weakened, you should avoid contact with children who have had the flu vaccine as a nasal spray. This is for 2 weeks following their vaccination.

Babies have the live rotavirus vaccine. The virus is in the baby’s poo for about 2 weeks and could make you ill if your immunity is low. Get someone else to change their nappies during this time if you can. If this isn't possible, wash your hands well after changing their nappy.

More information about this treatment

For further information about this treatment go to the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website.

You can report any side effect you have to the Medicines Health and Regulatory Authority (MHRA) as part of their Yellow Card Scheme.

Last reviewed: 
30 Jul 2018
  • Electronic Medicines Compendium 
    Accessed July 2018

  • Handbook of Cancer Chemotherapy (8th edition)
    Roland K Keel
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2012

  • Immunisation against infectious disease: Chapter 6: General contraindications to vaccination
    Public Health England
    First published: March 2013 and regularly updated on the Gov.UK website

  • Breast Pathway Group – FEC(100)-Docetaxel: Fluorouracil / Epirubicin / Cyclophosphamide followed by Docetaxel in Early Breast Cancer
    London Cancer Alliance (LCA) West and South, 2016

  • 5 Fluorouracil (5FU), Epirubicin & Cyclosphosphamide (FEC)
    The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, 2014

  • Sequential Adjuvant Epirubicin-Based and Docetaxel Chemotherapy for Node-Positive Breast Cancer Patients: The FNCLCC PACS 01 Trial
    H Roche and others
    Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2006. Vol 24, Number 36, Pages 5664-5671

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