FEC is a chemotherapy treatment used to treat breast cancer.
Your doctor will talk to you about this treatment and its possible side effects before you agree (consent) to have treatment.
FEC is named after the initials of the drugs used for this treatment. The drugs are:
In this information, we call fluorouracil by its more common name, 5FU.
Before starting this treatment, you should have a blood test to check whether you have low levels of an enzyme called DPD. This is called DPD deficiency. People who have low DPD levels can develop serious or life-threatening side effects if they have 5FU. If you have DPD deficiency, this can affect the treatments that are available for you.
You will not know without a test if you have DPD deficiency, as there are no symptoms. Testing can detect most cases of DPD deficiency, but not all cases. You can talk to your cancer doctor about your risk of having DPD deficiency before you start treatment.
You will be given FEC in the chemotherapy day unit. A chemotherapy nurse will give it to you.
During treatment you usually see a cancer doctor, a chemotherapy nurse or a specialist nurse, and a specialist pharmacist. This is who we mean when we mention doctor, nurse or pharmacist in this information.
Before or on the day of treatment, a nurse or person trained to take blood (phlebotomist) will take a blood sample from you. This is to check that your blood cells are at a safe level to have chemotherapy.
You will see a doctor or nurse before you have chemotherapy. They will talk to you about your blood results and ask you how you have been feeling. If your blood results are okay, the pharmacist will prepare your chemotherapy. Your nurse will tell you when your treatment is likely to be ready.
Your nurse usually gives you anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs before the chemotherapy. The chemotherapy drugs can be given through:
- a short thin tube the nurse puts into a vein in your arm or hand (cannula)
- a fine tube that goes under the skin of your chest and into a vein close by (central line)
- a fine tube that is put into a vein in your arm and goes up into a vein in your chest (PICC line).
Your nurse will give you 5FU, epirubicin (a red fluid) and cyclophosphamide as injections. They are given directly into your vein slowly, with a drip (infusion) to flush them through. Each drug should take 5 to 10 minutes.
Sometimes the nurse gives you cyclophosphamide as a drip (infusion) into your cannula or line, over 30 minutes.
Your course of chemotherapy
You usually have a course of several cycles of treatment over a few months. Your nurse or doctor will discuss your treatment plan with you.
Each cycle of FEC takes 21 days (3 weeks). On day 1, you have 5FU, epirubicin, and cyclophosphamide. You then have no chemotherapy for the next 20 days. At the end of the 21 days you start your second cycle of FEC. This is exactly the same as the first cycle. You usually have 4 to 6 cycles. Your doctor or nurse will tell you the number of cycles you are likely to have.
We explain the most common side effects of this treatment here. We also include some less common side effects. You may get some of the side effects we mention, but you are unlikely to get all of them.
You may also have some side effects that we have not listed here. Always tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about any side effects you have.
Your doctor can give you drugs to help control some side effects. It is important to take them exactly as your nurse or pharmacist explains. This means they will be more likely to work for you. Your nurse will give you advice about managing your side effects. After your treatment is over, most side effects start to improve.
Serious and life-threatening side effects
Some cancer treatments can cause severe side effects. Rarely, these may be life-threatening. Your cancer doctor, nurse or pharmacist can explain the risk of these side effects to you.
If you have low levels of an enzyme called DPD (DPD deficiency), you may have a higher risk of severe or life-threatening side effects.
Contact the hospital
Your nurse will give you telephone numbers for the hospital. If you feel unwell or need advice, you can call them at any time of the day or night. Save these numbers in your phone or keep them somewhere safe.
We cannot list every side effect for this treatment. There are some rare side effects that are not listed. You can visit the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) for more detailed information.
Side effects during treatment
Some people have an allergic reaction while having this treatment. Signs of a reaction can include:
- feeling hot or flushed
- a skin rash
- feeling dizzy
- a headache
- feeling breathless or wheezy
- swelling of your face or mouth
- pain in your back, tummy or chest.
Your nurse will check you for signs of a reaction during your treatment. If you feel unwell or have any of these signs, tell them straight away. If you do have a reaction, it can be treated quickly.
Sometimes a reaction happens a few hours after treatment. If you develop any signs or feel unwell after you get home, contact the hospital straight away.
The drug leaks outside the vein
The drug may leak outside the vein. If this happens it can damage the surrounding tissue. This is called extravasation. Extravasation is not common but if it happens it is important to treat it quickly. Tell your nurse straight away if you have any stinging, pain, redness or swelling around the vein.
Pain along the vein
You may suddenly feel warm and your face may get red while the epirubicin is being given. This should only last a few minutes.
Flushes and blocked nose
Some people may have hot flushes, a feeling of having a blocked nose and a strange taste in their mouth when cyclophosphamide is given.
This does not last for long. But if you notice this, tell your nurse. They can give the treatment more slowly, which will reduce these symptoms.
Risk of infection
This treatment can reduce the number of white blood cells in your blood. These cells fight infection. If the number of white blood cells is low, you are more likely to get an infection. A low white blood cell count is sometimes called neutropenia.
An infection can be very serious when the number of white blood cells is low. It is important to get any infection treated as soon as possible. Contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour contact number you have been given if:
- your temperature goes over 37.5°C (99.5°F)
- you suddenly feel unwell, even with a normal temperature
- you have symptoms of an infection
- your temperature goes below 36°C (96.8°F).
Symptoms of an infection include:
- feeling shivery and shaking
- a sore throat
- a cough
- needing to pass urine (pee) a lot, or discomfort when you pass urine.
It is important to follow any specific advice your cancer treatment team gives you.
The number of white blood cells will usually return to normal before your next treatment. You will have a blood test before having more treatment. If your white blood cell count is low, your doctor may delay your treatment for a short time, until your cell count increases.
You may be given a drug called G-CSF. This encourages the body to make more white blood cells. You have it as a small injection under the skin.
Bruising and bleeding
This treatment can reduce the number of platelets in your blood. Platelets are cells that help the blood to clot.
If the number of platelets is low, you may bruise or bleed easily. You may have:
- bleeding gums
- heavy periods
- blood in your urine (pee) or stools (poo)
- tiny red or purple spots on the skin that may look like a rash.
Tell your doctor if you have any unexplained bruising or bleeding. You may need a drip to give you extra platelets. This is called a platelet transfusion.
Anaemia (low number of red blood cells)
This treatment can reduce the number of red blood cells in your blood. Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body. If the number of red blood cells is low, this is called anaemia. You may have symptoms such as:
- pale skin
- lack of energy
- feeling breathless
- feeling dizzy and light-headed.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have these symptoms.
If you are very anaemic, you may need a drip to give you extra red blood cells. This is called a blood transfusion.
Your doctor will give you anti-sickness drugs to help prevent or control sickness during your treatment. Take the drugs exactly as your nurse or pharmacist tells you. It is easier to prevent sickness than to treat it after it has started.If you feel sick, take small sips of fluids often and eat small amounts regularly. It is important to drink enough fluids. If you continue to feel sick, or are sick (vomit) more than once in 24 hours, contact the hospital as soon as possible. They will give you advice. Your doctor or nurse may change the anti-sickness drug to one that works better for you.
Feeling tired is a common side effect of this treatment. It is often worse towards the end of treatment and for some weeks after it has finished. Try to pace yourself and plan your day so you have time to rest. Gentle exercise, like short walks, can give you more energy.
If you feel sleepy, do not drive or use machinery.
Your hair will get thinner. Or you may lose all the hair from your head. You may also lose your eyelashes and eyebrows, as well as other body hair. Hair loss usually starts after your first or second treatment.
Scalp cooling is a way of lowering the temperature of your scalp to help reduce hair loss. Your nurse can tell you if this is an option for you.
Your nurse can talk to you about ways to cope with hair loss. There are ways to cover up hair loss if you want to. Your scalp may be sensitive. It is important to cover your head to protect your skin when you are out in the sun.
Hair loss is almost always temporary and your hair will usually grow back after treatment ends.
This treatment may cause severe diarrhoea. Diarrhoea means passing more stools (poo) than is usual for you, or having watery or loose stools. If you have a stoma, it will be more active than usual.
Your hospital team may give you anti-diarrhoea drugs to take at home.
If you have diarrhoea or a mild increase in stoma activity:
- follow any advice from your cancer team about taking anti-diarrhoea drugs
- drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluids each day
- avoid alcohol, caffeine, milk products, high-fat foods and high-fibre foods.
Contact the hospital straight away if:
- you have diarrhoea at night
- you have diarrhoea more than 4 times in a day
- you have a moderate or severe increase in stoma activity
- the anti-diarrhoea drugs do not work within 24 hours.
You may need to go to hospital to have fluids through a drip.
Sore mouth and throat
This treatment may cause a sore mouth and throat. You may also get mouth ulcers. This can make you more likely to get a mouth or throat infection. Use a soft toothbrush to clean your teeth or dentures in the morning, at night and after meals.
If your mouth or throat is sore:
- tell your nurse or doctor – they can give you a mouthwash or medicines to help
- try to drink plenty of fluids
- avoid alcohol, tobacco, and foods that irritate your mouth and throat.
Sucking ice chips may sometimes help relieve mouth or throat pain.
You may get pain in your tummy (abdomen), or have indigestion. Your doctor can give you drugs to help improve these symptoms. Tell them if the pain gets worse or does not get better.
Loss of appetite
This treatment can affect your appetite. Do not worry if you do not eat much for a day or two. But if your appetite does not come back after a few days, tell your nurse or dietitian. They will give you advice. They may give you food or drink supplements.
Cyclophosphamide may irritate your bladder and cause discomfort when you pass urine (pee). Drink plenty of fluids, at least 2 litres (3 ½ pints) during the first 24 hours after chemotherapy. It is also important to empty your bladder regularly and to try to pass urine as soon as you feel you need to. Contact the hospital straight away if you find it difficult to pass urine. Or contact the hospital if you feel any discomfort or stinging when you pass urine. If you notice any blood in your urine tell your doctor straight away.
Epirubicin may make your urine a pink-red colour for up to 48 hours after treatment.
This treatment may affect your skin. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what to expect. If your skin feels dry, try using an unperfumed moisturising cream every day. Treatment can cause a rash, which may be itchy.
During treatment and for some months after it finishes, you will be more sensitive to the sun. Your skin may burn more easily. Cover up with clothing and a hat. Use a sun cream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and at least four or five UVA stars. Your skin may darken. But skin will return to its normal colour after you finish treatment. If you have had radiotherapy, the area that was treated may become red or sore.
Always tell your doctor or nurse about any skin changes. They can give you advice and may give you creams or medicines to help. Any changes to your skin are usually temporary and improve when treatment finishes.
Sore and red palms of hands and soles of feet
You may get sore and red palms of hands and soles of feet. The skin may also begin to peel. This is called palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome. It usually gets better after treatment ends.
Tell your doctor or nurse about any changes to your hands or feet. They can give you advice and prescribe creams to improve any symptoms you have. It can help to:
- keep your hands and feet cool
- moisturise your hands and feet regularly
- avoid tight-fitting socks, shoes and gloves.
This treatment can affect your nails. They may grow more slowly or break more easily. You might notice ridges or white or dark lines across your nails. Sometimes nails can become loose or fall out. When treatment finishes, any changes usually disappear as the nails grow out.There are things you can do to look after your nails:
- Moisturise your nails and cuticles regularly.
- Keep your nails clipped short.
- Wear gloves to protect your nails when you are doing things in the house or garden.
- Keep your hands and nails clean to help avoid infection, but avoid bathing in very hot water.
- Do not use false nails, gels or other acrylics during this treatment, as they may increase the risk of infection.
- It is fine to wear nail varnish, but try to use a water-based polish. Avoid using harsh chemicals, such as acetone, when taking off the polish.
- If your toenails are affected, wear well-fitted shoes to cushion them.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you notice changes to your nails. They can give you advice or arrange for you to see a podiatrist for foot care advice if needed.
Effects on the kidneys
This treatment can affect how your kidneys work. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment finishes. You will have blood tests to check how well your kidneys are working. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have blood in your urine (pee) or you are passing urine less than usual.
It is important to drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of non-alcoholic fluid each day to help protect your kidneys.
Effects on the liver
This treatment may affect how your liver works. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment. You will have blood tests to check how well your liver is working.
This treatment may make your eyes feel sore, red and itchy. This is called conjunctivitis. Your doctor will prescribe eye drops to help prevent this. It is important to use these as you are told to.
This treatment may also make your eyes more sensitive to light and cause blurry vision. If you have pain or notice any change in your vision, always tell your doctor or nurse.
Changes in the way the heart works
5FU can affect how the heart works. You may have tests to see how well your heart is working. These may be done before, during and after treatment.
It is still possible for the heart to be affected even if these test results are normal. Very rarely, this can cause heart failure or a heart attack. The risk of this happening is very low (less than 1 in 100 or 1%). But it is important that you know about it.
Call your doctor straight away on the 24-hour number the hospital has given you if you have any of these symptoms at any time during treatment:
- pain or tightness in your chest
- changes to your heartbeat.
If you cannot get through to your doctor, call the NHS urgent advice number which is 111.
Effects on the lungs
This treatment can cause changes to the lungs. Tell your doctor if you develop:
- a cough
You should also tell them if any existing breathing problems get worse. You may have tests to check your lungs.
5FU can cause a sudden tightness in your chest, making it difficult to breath. This can happen if the muscles in your airway contract for a short time (spasm). This can also cause a cough or wheeze. Contact your doctor straight away if you have difficulty breathing.
Effects on the nervous system
Sometimes, this treatment can affect the nervous system. This can cause symptoms including:
- problems with eyesight or speech
- confusion or drowsiness
- seizures (fits)
- weakness in an arm, leg or the face muscles
- problems with walking or movement.
Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you notice any of these symptoms. It is important not to drive or operate machinery if you notice these effects.
This treatment can increase the risk of developing a second cancer years later. This is rare. The benefits of treatment usually far outweigh this risk. Your doctor can talk to you about this.
Blood clot risk
Cancer and some cancer treatments can increase the risk of a blood clot. Symptoms of a blood clot include:
- throbbing pain, redness or swelling in a leg or arm
- suddenly feeling breathless or coughing
- sharp chest pain, which may be worse when you cough or take a deep breath.
If you have any of these symptoms, contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour contact number you have been given. If you cannot get through to your doctor, call the NHS urgent advice number on 111.
A blood clot is serious, but it can be treated with drugs that thin the blood (anticoagulants). Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.
You can help reduce the risk of developing a blood clot by:
- staying active during treatment
- drinking plenty of fluids, especially water.
You may be given anticoagulants to help prevent a clot.
Driving and using machines
Do not drive or use machines if you:
- have blurred vision
- feel drowsy
- feel tired
- have difficulty concentrating.
Hearing changes or effects on the nervous system may also affect your ability to drive or use machines. Your doctor can tell you more about this.
Some medicines can affect how this treatment works or be harmful when you are having it. Always tell your cancer doctor about any drugs you are taking or planning to take, such as:
- medicines you have been prescribed
- medicines you buy in a shop or chemist
- vitamins, herbal drugs and complementary therapies.
Tell other doctors, pharmacists or dentists who prescribe or give you medicines that you are having this cancer treatment.
You can visit the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) for more detailed information about your treatment.
Vaccinations can reduce your risk of getting certain infections. Your doctor or nurse may talk to you about having vaccinations.
Doctors usually recommend that people with cancer have a flu vaccination and a coronavirus vaccination. These are both inactivated vaccinations that can help reduce the risk of infection. People with weak immune systems can have these, as they are not live vaccinations.
If your immune system is weak, you need to avoid live vaccinations. This is because they can make you unwell. Live vaccines, such as shingles, contain a very weak version of the illness they are vaccinating you against. Your cancer doctor or GP can tell you more about live and inactivated vaccinations.
Your doctor will advise you not to get pregnant or make someone pregnant while having this treatment. The drugs may harm a developing baby. It is important to use contraception during your treatment and for a while after treatment finishes. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can tell you more about this.
You are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment, or for some time after treatment finishes. This is because the drugs could be passed to the baby through breast milk.
Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.
If you have sex in the first few days after this treatment, you should use barrier protection such as a condom or dental dam. This will protect your partner if any of the drug is in your semen or vaginal fluids.
Medical and dental treatment
If you need medical treatment for any reason other than cancer, always tell the doctors and nurses you are having cancer treatment. Give them the contact details for your cancer doctor so they can ask for advice.
If you think you need dental treatment, talk to your cancer doctor or nurse. Always tell your dentist you are having cancer treatment.
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert health professionals and people living with cancer.
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