Chemo Pills Effective, But Patients May Skip Doses

THURSDAY Jan. 17, 2013 -- Although chemotherapy pills are able to target certain cancers better than traditional intravenous drugs, some patients have trouble taking them, according to new research.

A study from researchers at Michigan State University found that more than 40 percent of patients took the wrong number of pills or skipped doses altogether. They noted severe side effects and complicated instructions for some oral prescriptions often are to blame.

"Prescriptions for some oral pills have complex instructions," study leader Sandra Spoelstra, an assistant professor of nursing, said in a university news release. "Some of them require patients to take pills several times a day or cycle their doses, taking one pill a day for three weeks, then stopping for a week before starting again. And some patients take two types of pills to treat their cancer or have multiple medications for other chronic conditions. It can be very complicated."

The researchers noted that chemotherapy pills often cause pain, severe nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue and skin reactions. Patients may skip doses of their medications to avoid these negative side effects, making the pills ineffective.

In the study, which was published recently in the journal Cancer Nursing, the researchers divided the participants into three groups. The first group included patients who had help deciphering their prescriptions from an automated calling system developed at the university. Patients in the second group received the automated calls as well as follow-up calls from nurses providing them with tips on how to stick to their treatment plan. The third group received the automated calls and the follow-up tips from nurses, as well as advice on how to manage their symptoms.

The study found that patients in all three groups said their symptoms had eased by the end of the study. The researchers noted that the automated calls alone were just as effective as when they were offered with tips from nurses.

The study's authors concluded that the automated call system could be an inexpensive way to help patients on chemotherapy pills follow through on their treatment plan correctly. They said nurses should carefully explain oral chemotherapy instructions. The researchers added that their findings could provide a foundation for more research to help improve oral chemotherapy.

"It's cutting-edge treatment, but we don't know enough about it yet," said the study's co-author, Barbara Given, associate dean for research in the university's College of Nursing. "People think if they had a life-threatening disease and their doctor recommended treatment, they'd follow the recommendations. But it's really not that simple."

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute provides more information on cancer drugs.

Posted: January 2013


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