| Last Modified: August 22, 2011
Irinotecan is thought to work by blocking the action of an enzyme in cells called topoisomerase I. Cells need this enzyme to keep their DNA in the proper shape when they are dividing. Blocking this enzyme leads to breaks in the DNA, which leads to cell death. Because cancer cells divide faster than normal cells, they are more likely than normal cells to be affected by irinotecan.
How to Take Irinotecan
Irinotecan is given by intravenous (into a vein) infusion. It is usually given either once every 3 weeks, or weekly for 4 weeks followed by 2 weeks off. The actual dose and dosing schedule will depend on your body size, your age and general health.
Possible Side Effects of Irinotecan
There are a number of things you can do to manage the side effects of Irinotecan. Talk to your doctor or nurse about these recommendations. They can help you decide what will work best for you. These are some of the most common side effects:
Diarrhea is a common side effect of irinotecan and is potentially dangerous because it can lead to serious dehydration. Diarrhea can be defined as an increase in the number of bowel movements you have in a day. Your healthcare team will tell you how to take loperamide (an anti-diarrheal medication), which you should start taking as soon as diarrhea develops. Notify your healthcare team if the diarrhea does not stop on this medication so they can help you better manage this side effect.
Runny nose, excess saliva, watery eyes, sweating and cramping can accompany diarrhea that occurs within the first day of receiving this medication. If any of these symptoms occur during the infusion, notify your nurse. Diarrhea can continue to occur for 10-12 days after the treatment.
Your oncology team can recommend medications to relieve diarrhea. Also, try eating low-fiber, bland foods, such as white rice and boiled or baked chicken. Avoid raw fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads, cereals and seeds. Soluble fiber is found in some foods that absorbs fluid and can help relieve diarrhea. Foods high in soluble fiber include: applesauce, bananas (ripe), canned fruit, orange and grapefruit sections, boiled potatoes, white rice and products made with white flour, oatmeal, cream of rice, cream of wheat, and farina. Drink 8-10 glasses on non-alcoholic, un-caffeinated fluid a day to prevent dehydration. Try sports drinks to replace electrolytes. Read Low Fiber Diet for Diarrhea for more tips.
Low White Blood Cell Count (Leukopenia or Neutropenia)
White blood cells (WBC) are important for fighting infection. While receiving treatment, your WBC count can drop, putting you at a higher risk of getting an infection. You should let your doctor or nurse know right away if you have a fever (temperature greater than 100.4 F), sore throat or cold, shortness of breath, cough, burning with urination, or a sore that doesn't heal.
Tips to preventing infection:
For more suggestions, read the Neutropenia Tip Sheet.
Low Red Blood Cell Count (Anemia)
Your red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen to the tissues in your body. When the red cell count is low, you may feel tired or weak. You should let your doctor or nurse know if you experience any shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or pain in your chest. If the count gets too low, you may receive a blood transfusion. Read the anemia tip sheet for more information.
Low Platelet Count (Thrombocytopenia)
Platelets help your blood clot, so when the count is low you are at a higher risk of bleeding. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have any excess bruising or bleeding, including nosebleeds, bleeding gums or blood in your urine or stool. If your platelet count becomes too low, you may receive a transfusion of platelets.
Read the thrombocytopenia tip sheet for more information.
Nausea and/or Vomiting
Take anti-nausea medications as prescribed. If you continue to have nausea or vomiting, notify your doctor or nurse so they can help you manage this side effect. In addition, dietary changes may help. Avoid things that may worsen the symptoms, such as heavy or greasy/fatty, spicy or acidic foods (lemons, tomatoes, oranges). Try antacids, (e.g. milk of magnesia, calcium tablets such as Tums), saltines, or ginger ale to lessen symptoms. Read the Nausea & Vomiting Tip Sheet for more suggestions.
Call your doctor or nurse if you are unable to keep fluids down for more than 12 hours or if you feel lightheaded or dizzy at any time.
Decrease in Appetite
These include dryness, itching, and rash. You should use a moisturizer on your skin and lips, but avoid moisturizers with perfumes or scents. Your doctor or nurse can recommend medication if itching is bothersome. If your skin does crack or bleed, be sure to keep the area clean to avoid infection. For more suggestions, read the Nail and Skin Care Tip Sheet.
Loss or Thinning of Scalp and Body Hair (Alopecia)
Your hair may become thin, brittle, or may fall out. This typically begins two to three weeks after treatment starts. This hair loss can be all body hair, including pubic, underarm, legs/arms, eyelashes, and nose hairs. The use of scarves, wigs, hats and hairpieces may help. Hair generally starts to regrow soon after treatment is completed. Remember your hair helps keep you warm in cold weather, so a hat is particularly important in cold weather or to protect you from the sun. Read more on alopecia.
May occur during the infusion. Let your doctor or nurse know if you experience flushing, sweating or dizziness.
Other Side Effects
Some less common side effects that have been reported include: mouth ulcers and heart problems. These can include chest pain, blood clots, stroke and heart attack. If you develop any swelling or pain in your leg or calf, shortness of breath, chest pain, confusion or weakness on one side of your body, call your healthcare team immediately or call 911.