Gemcitabine is a type of chemotherapy drug that is a treatment for a number of different cancer types.
What is gemcitabine?
Gemcitabine is a chemotherapy drug used as a treatment for different types of cancer, including bladder and breast cancer.
Depending on your cancer type you might have gemcitabine on its own or in combination with other cancer drugs. You might also have it alongside radiotherapy treatment.
How does gemcitabine work?
Gemcitabine destroys quickly dividing cells, such as cancer cells.
How do you have gemcitabine?
You have gemcitabine into your bloodstream (intravenously). It takes about 30 minutes.
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
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.
How often do you have gemcitabine?
You usually have gemcitabine as a course of several cycles of treatment. This means that you have the drug and then a rest to allow your body to recover. Usually a cycle of gemcitabine is over 3 to 4 weeks (21 to 28 days).
You usually have gemcitabine once a week for 2 or 3 weeks and then a week with no treatment. You have gemcitabine on its own or in combination with other cancer drugs. You can also have it alongside radiotherapy treatment depending on your cancer type.
The exact number of cycles and how long the cycle is, depends on your cancer type. Your healthcare team will explain your specific treatment plan to you.
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.
What are the side effects of gemcitabine?
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.
When to contact your team
Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will go through the possible side effects. They will monitor you 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.
We haven't listed all the side effects here. Remember it is very unlikely that you will have all of these side effects. But you might have some of them at the same time.
Common side effects
These side effects happen in more than 10 in 100 people (more than 10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:
Increased risk of getting an 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 and looking pale
You might be breathless and look pale due to a drop in red blood cells. This is called anaemia.
Bruising, bleeding gums or nosebleeds
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 petechiae).
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.
You might have liver changes that are usually mild and unlikely to cause symptoms. They usually go back to normal when treatment finishes. You have regular blood tests to check for any changes in the way your liver is working.
Less commonly you might have severe liver problems such as liver failure.
These may include headaches, muscle aches (myalgia), a high temperature and shivering. Ask your healthcare team if you can take medicines such as paracetamol to help.
Swelling in the face, hands and feet
This usually goes away on its own, but tell your doctor or nurse if you have it.
You may have difficulty breathing with wheezing and coughing. Let your healthcare team know straight away if this happens.
Rarely you might have changes to the lung tissue or temporary narrowing of the bronchial tubes.
Blood and protein in your urine
Small amounts of blood and protein in your urine may be found when your nurse tests your urine. This usually goes away on its own. If there are large amounts of protein you may have tests to check how well your kidneys are working.
Skin problems include a skin rash, dry skin and itching. This usually goes back to normal when your treatment finishes. Your nurse will tell you what products you can use on your skin to help.
You could lose all your hair. This includes your eyelashes, eyebrows, underarms, legs 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.
Tiredness and weakness (fatigue) during and after treatment
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.
Occasional side effects
These side effects happen in between 1 and 10 out of every 100 people (between 1 and 10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:
- watery or loose poo (diarrhoea)
- difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
- a sore mouth or mouth ulcers
- loss of appetite
- a cough
- back or muscle pain
- a runny nose
- being very sleepy (drowsiness)
Rare side effects
These side effects happen in fewer than 1 in 100 people (fewer than 1%). You might have one or more of them. They include:
- kidney problems such as kidney failure or small blood clots in the blood vessels inside the kidney (haemolytic uremic syndrome)
- heart problems such as an irregular heartbeat, heart muscle changes, or rarely a heart attack.
- allergic reaction - an allergic reaction that can cause a rash, shortness of breath, redness or swelling of the face and dizziness - some allergic reactions can be life-threatening, alert your nurse or doctor if notice any of these symptoms
- posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome (PRES) - a rare disorder of the nerves causing headache, fits, confusion and changes in vision - contact your health team straight away. This condition is reversible.
- severe peeling or blistering of the skin (toxic epidermal necrolysis)
- Stevens-Johnson syndrome - a severe skin reaction that may start as tender red patches leading to peeling or blistering of the skin. You might also feel feverish and your eyes may be more sensitive to light. This is serious and could be life threatening.
Coping with side effects
We have more information about side effects and tips on how to cope with them.
What else do I need to know
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.
Some brands of this drug contain alcohol (equal to half a glass of wine or half a pint of beer) and may make you drowsy or dizzy, especially if you have drunk alcohol. Don't operate machinery or drive if you feel drowsy.
Pregnancy and contraception
This treatment may 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 at least 6 months afterwards.
Talk to your doctor or nurse about effective contraception before starting treatment. Let them know straight away if you or your partner falls pregnant while having treatment.
It is not known whether this drug comes through into the breast milk. Doctors usually advise that you don’t breastfeed during this treatment.
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 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.
Treatment for other conditions
Always tell other doctors, nurses, pharmacists or dentists that you’re having this treatment. For example, if you need treatment for anything else, including teeth problems.
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 one of the shingles vaccines called Zostavax.
You can have:
- other vaccines, but they might not give you as much protection as usual
- the flu vaccine (as an injection)
- the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine - talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the best time to have it in relation to your cancer treatment
Members of your household who are aged 5 years or over are also able to have the COVID-19 vaccine. This is to help lower your risk of getting COVID-19 while having cancer treatment and until your
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. Sometimes people who have had the live shingles vaccine can get a shingles type rash. If this happens they should keep the area covered.
If your immune system is severely weakened, you should avoid contact with children who have had the flu vaccine as a nasal spray as this is a live vaccine. 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
We haven't listed all the very rare side effects of this treatment. For further information see the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website.
You can report any side effect you have that isn’t listed here to the Medicines Health and Regulatory Authority (MHRA) as part of their Yellow Card Scheme.