Vincristine

Vincristine is a type of chemotherapy. It is a treatment for a number of different cancer types. You usually have vincristine with other cancer drugs.

How does vincristine work?

Vincristine is a chemotherapy drug that belongs to a group of drugs called vinca alkaloids. 

Vincristine works by stopping the cancer cells from separating into 2 new cells. So, it stops the growth of the cancer.

How you have vincristine?

You have vincristine into your bloodstream (intravenously). 

You might have the treatment through a drip into your arm or hand. A nurse puts a small tube (a cannula) into one of your veins and connects the drip to it.

Or you might need a central line. This is a long plastic tube that gives the drugs into a large vein, either in your chest or through a vein in your arm. It stays in while you’re having treatment, which may be for a few months.

How often do you have vincristine?

You have chemotherapy as cycles of treatment. This means you have the cancer drug or drugs and then a rest to allow your body to recover. Your treatment plan depends on which cancer you have. Your doctor or nurse will talk to you about this, so you know what to expect.

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.

What are the side effects of vincristine?

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. 

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

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.

You might have one or more of these side effects. 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. 

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.

Numbness or tingling in fingers or toes

Numbness or tingling in fingers or toes is often temporary and can improve after you finish treatment. Tell your healthcare team if you're finding it difficult to walk or complete fiddly tasks such as doing up buttons. 

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.

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.

Constipation

Constipation is easier to sort out if you treat it early. Drink plenty of fluids and eat as much fresh fruit and vegetables as you can. Try to take gentle exercise, such as walking. Tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist if you are constipated for more than 3 days. They can prescribe a laxative.

Also tell your doctor about any changes to your bowel habits.

Tummy (abdominal) pain

Tell your treatment team if you have this. They can check the cause and give you medicine to help. 

Changes to your eyesight

Tell the team looking after you if you notice any changes or have pain. This is usually rare and temporary. 

Problems with your bladder

Let your doctor know if you are having this. Let your treatment team know if you are having problems passing urine or have pain.

Muscle or bone pain

You might feel some pain from your muscles and bones, including pain in your jaw or back. Speak to your doctor or nurse about what painkillers you can take to help with this.

Sore mouth

You might get a sore mouth and mouth ulcers. It may be painful to swallow drinks or food. You will have mouth washes to keep your mouth healthy.

You can have painkillers to reduce the soreness. Take them half an hour before meals to make eating easier.

Swelling and pain at the drip site

Tell your nurse straight away if you have any pain, redness, swelling or leaking around your drip site.

Allergic reaction

A small number of people have an allergic reaction while having this treatment. Symptoms can include a rash, shortness of breath, redness or swelling of the face, feeling hot, dizziness, and a sudden need to pass urine.

Tell your doctor or nurse immediately if you have any of these symptoms or feel unwell at all while you are having the treatment or shortly afterwards.

Hearing changes

You might have some hearing loss, especially with high pitched sounds. Tell your doctor or nurse if you notice any changes.

These changes are due to damage to one of the cranial nerves. You may also have difficulty with balance including dizziness, feeling like the room is spinning (vertigo) and uncontrolled eye movement (nystagmus).

Loss of appetite and weight loss

You might not feel like eating and may lose weight. It is important to eat as much as you can. Eating several small meals and snacks throughout the day can be easier to manage. You can talk to a dietitian if you are concerned about your appetite or weight loss. 

Skin rash

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have a skin rash. They can prescribe medicine to soothe your skin.

Headaches

Let your doctor or nurse know if you have headaches. They can give you painkillers.

Diarrhoea

This is a rare side effect.

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.

Heart problems

This includes coronary heart disease and a heart attack. This is a possible side effect if you have had radiotherapy to part of the chest before (the mediastinum), and you have had vincristine with other chemotherapy drugs. It is not clear if this side effect is directly caused by the vincristine.

Tell your doctor or nurse immediately, or call 999, if you have symptoms of a heart attack. These include: chest pain, pain spreading from the chest to your arms, jaw, back or tummy, feeling dizzy, sweaty, short of breath, coughing or wheezing, being sick or an overwhelming feeling of anxiety.

Bruising, bleeding gums or nose bleeds

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).

Low sodium levels

You may develop low sodium levels in your blood. This is due to your body making too much anti diuretic hormone. This means your body holds on to too much water. As your blood becomes more dilute, your levels of sodium drop. This is rare, but you have regular blood tests to check for this.

Fits (seizures)

Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if this happens.

Muscle weakness

Your muscles may get weaker. This can make it difficult to walk and cause difficulty with your speech.

Changes in blood pressure

During treatment, your blood pressure may be lower or higher than normal. Tell your nurse if you feel dizzy or faint. Or if you have headaches, nosebleeds, blurred or double vision, or shortness of breath.

Your blood pressure usually goes back to normal while you are on treatment or when treatment ends.

Second cancers

There is a small risk that you may get a second cancer some years after this treatment. Your doctor will discuss this with you.

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.

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. Let them know straight away if you or your partner falls pregnant while having treatment.

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 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 drug may come through into 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 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 immune system Open a glossary item recovers from treatment.

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

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.

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