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Melphalan (Alkeran)

Melphalan is a type of chemotherapy and is also known as Alkeran. You might have it as a treatment for different types of cancer, including myeloma.

How Melphalan works

Melphalan is one of a group of drugs called alkylating agents. It sticks to one of the cancer cell's DNA strands. DNA is the genetic code that is in the nucleus of all animal and plant cells. It controls everything the cell does. The cell cannot then grow and divide into 2 new cells.

How you have melphalan

Melphalan is a clear liquid that you have as a drip into your bloodstream (intravenously). It also comes as a white tablet, that you swallow whole, on an empty stomach. You need to store the tablets in the fridge. 

Taking your tablets

You must take tablets according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you.

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 specialist or advice line before you stop taking a cancer drug.

Into your bloodstream

You 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 melphalan

You usually have melphalan as a course of several cycles of treatment. Your treatment plan depends on which type of cancer you have. 

For example, if you have myeloma you often have melphalan as part of a combination of drugs, including a steroid (such as prednisolone) and a targeted drug (such as bortezomib). In this case, you might take melphalan tablets for the first 4 days of each cycle of treatment. A cycle usually lasts 4 or 6 weeks. You may have between 6 and 12 cycles. 

Some people might have high doses of melphalan with a stem cell transplant. You have high dose melphalan directly into your bloodstream (intravenously), usually through a central line.

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 is 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 treatment you are having. For example, your side effects could be worse if you are 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.

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.

This is usually mild if you take melphalan tablets, but can be more severe with melphalan through a drip.

Warm or a tingling feeling along the vein

This can happen when having melphalan as a drip into your vein. 

Diarrhoea

Contact your advice line if you have diarrhoea, that is 4 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 of liquid to replace the fluid lost.

Mouth 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.

This usually happens with high doses of melphalan. 

Hair loss

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

This usually happens with high doses of melphalan. 

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: 

  • an allergic reaction while you are having melphalan into your bloodstream
  • high levels of urea in your blood if you have kidney problems

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: 

  • liver changes that are usually mild and unlikely to cause symptoms
  • a second cancer some years after treatment
  • a blood disorder called haemolytic anaemia
  • skin rash and itchy skin
  • lung problems such as coughing and wheezing

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.

Breastfeeding

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

Fertility

You may not be able to become pregnant or father a child after treatment with this drug. Talk to your doctor before starting treatment if you think you may want to have a baby in the future. Men may be able to store sperm before starting treatment. Women may be able to store eggs or ovarian tissue but this is rare.

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 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)
  • be in contact with other people who've had live vaccines as injections

Avoid close contact with people who’ve recently had live vaccines taken by mouth (oral vaccines) such as oral polio or the typhoid vaccine.

This also includes the rotavirus vaccine given to babies. The virus is in the baby’s poo for up to 2 weeks and could make you ill. So, avoid changing their nappies for 2 weeks after their vaccination if possible. Or wear disposable gloves and wash your hands well afterwards.

You should also avoid close contact with children who have had the flu vaccine nasal spray if your immune system is severely weakened. 

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.

Information and help

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