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What is an Etoposide?

By Emma Lloyd
Updated May 17, 2024
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Etoposide phosphate is a type of medication called an antineoplastic agent, which simply means that it prevents the growth of certain types of cancer cells. It is a chemotherapy drug used to treat testicular cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, leukemia, Kaposi’s sarcoma, brain tumors and some types of lung cancer. Etoposide is a generic medication and is available under brand names such as Etopophos®, Vepesid® and Eposin®.

This medication can be taken orally or intravenously. When taken orally, it can be taken at home. Intravenous treatment often is an outpatient procedure that requires traveling to a hospital or clinic and generally takes about one hour. Following treatment, patients must drink up to three liters of water per day for several days, in order to prevent kidney and bladder damage. This medication can cause birth defects and can harm a nursing baby if the mother is taking the medication.

Etoposide works by inhibiting the action of an enzyme called topoisomerase II, which is involved in DNA replication. When the activity of this enzyme is prevented, DNA cannot replicate, the cell cannot divide, and it dies. The topoisomerase II enzyme is highly active in cancer cells, because these cells divide very rapidly. This means that the cells are sensitive to medications that interfere with processes involved in DNA replication and cell division.

It is common to experience side effects when taking etoposide. Possible side effects include a metallic taste in the mouth, low blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain and hair loss. These symptoms are highly unpleasant but are not unusual. Many of these symptoms occur because other types of fast-growing cells are killed after exposure to the medication. In general, cells that grow and divide rapidly, such as hair follicles and gastrointestinal tract cells, are vulnerable.

Cells of the immune system also can be destroyed by etoposide. People who take this medication are therefore vulnerable to infection and must take care to avoid people with any type of contagious illness, including colds and flu. In addition, most live vaccines must be avoided, because they have the potential to cause disease in someone whose immune system is suppressed.

Uncommon symptoms include unexplained bruising or persistent bleeding, dizziness, diarrhea that persists more than two days, a rash, chills, fever and difficulty or discomfort when breathing. These symptoms should be reported to a doctor as soon as possible. Seeking medical attention is important because some of these symptoms are indications of a possible infection that could progress very quickly if not treated.

Although this medication is used to treat several types of cancer, it also has the potential to cause a cancer called acute myelogenous leukemia. This cancer develops in the bone marrow and results in the overgrowth of abnormal white blood cells. The cancer risk is highest between three and five years after using the medication.

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