Gemcitabine, sold under the brand name Gemzar®, is a prescription cancer medication approved by the FDA for use with other chemotherapy drugs to treat various forms of cancer, including advanced ovarian cancer, breast cancer and non-small-cell lung cancer. It is also approved as a single-agent treatment for locally advanced or metastatic pancreatic cancer. Gemcitabine is administered by injection by a healthcare professional, with the purpose of slowing or stopping the growth of cancerous cells. Among the most common gemcitabine side effects is the suppression of bone marrow function, which can result in low blood cell counts. Other serious side effects, such as breathing problems and damage to the kidneys or liver, may also occur.
Gemcitabine side effects may increase when the drug is administered for longer than 60 minutes or more frequently than once a week. Patients undergoing radiation therapy before, during or after treatment with gemcitabine may also experience a greater incidence of side effects. This is particularly true of the site of the radiation treatment.
The most common gemcitabine side effects include low blood cell counts — including white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets — hair loss, itching or other abnormal skin sensations, red spots under the skin, blood in the urine, tiredness, and swelling of the hands or feet. Diarrhea, constipation, and vomiting are also frequently reported, as are flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, chills, muscle aches, headaches, weakness and loss of appetite. Gemcitabine side effects are generally mild; however, patients should notify their healthcare provider if these common gemcitabine side effects persist or become particularly bothersome.
Several severe side effects may also be experienced by patients who are treated with gemcitabine. These require immediate medical attention. Among these severe gemcitabine side effects are difficulty breathing, difficulty urinating, a decreased output of urine, dark urine, irregular heartbeat, irregular or absent menstruation, seizures, joint or muscle pain, numbness in the arms or legs, confusion, or severe allergic reactions such as the presence of a rash, hives, itching, tightness of the chest, or swelling of the mouth, face, lips or tongue.
The risk of anemia and heart, lung, kidney and liver problems associated with the use of gemcitabine means that patients with a history of these problems should consult with their healthcare provider prior to receiving treatment. All patients are advised to take steps to prevent infection and injury — such as hand washing, using care with sharp objects, and avoiding contact sports — before, during and after treatment. This can help to minimize the potential for gemcitabine side effects.
Gemcitabine may be harmful to unborn babies, and it is unknown whether the drug is transferred to breast milk. Patients who are pregnant or may become pregnant should discuss the potential for gemcitabine side effects and associated risks with a healthcare professional before beginning treatment. Those who are breastfeeding should do the same, because the doctor may advise that breastfeeding be stopped prior to treatment.