Taking medicines

It's important to take medicines safely and follow the instructions carefully. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist if you have any questions.

Follow instructions about taking medicines

Taking medicines at home is a common part of cancer treatment.

The medicines are much more likely to work if you follow the instructions about how to take them. But we know from research that many people don’t take them as they should.

How you take a drug by mouth can affect how much your body absorbs. So, if you don’t take it as you should, less of the drug may reach your cancer.

What affects how medicines work

Several factors affect the absorption of a drug and how well it works.

Drugs stay active in the body for a particular length of time, from a couple of hours to over a day. This is why you must take different drugs at different intervals.

The time it takes for the body to absorb a drug and be most effective also varies.

You must take your medicine regularly to ensure you have the right level of the drug in your body. If you forget or miss a dose, it can take time to get back to the right level.

This is the same for drugs that control symptoms or treat cancer. For example, painkillers work best if you take them regularly. This way, the drug maintains its level in your body and controls pain. Cancer drugs work in the same way. So, if you maintain the cancer drug levels, it will act much better on cancer cells.

Everyone forgets to take tablets sometimes. What you need to do if you forget a dose depends on your medicine. Missing one dose is unlikely to be a problem. But missing several doses could mean the treatment doesn’t work as well as it should.

Tell your cancer healthcare team if you have missed several doses.

It is important to keep taking a drug for as long as your healthcare team has told you to. This could be weeks, months or even years.

For example, the hormone therapy tamoxifen for breast cancer is a tablet you may take daily for 5 years. It reduces the risk of the cancer coming back.

For drugs to work, your body must break them down and absorb them. This process happens in the gut when you take medicines by mouth as tablets, capsules or liquids.

A full stomach absorbs some drugs better, and an empty stomach works better for others. Follow the instructions from your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about this. It will also be on the information sheet you get with your tablets and the label on the box.

Some foods affect how much of a drug you absorb, which could stop it from working as well as it should. For example, grapefruit and grapefruit juice interfere with several drugs. This information will be part of the instructions you get with your drugs.

Check with your doctor, nurse or pharmacist if you are unsure if you should take your drugs on an empty stomach or not.

Having diarrhoea or being sick might affect the amount of the drug that stays in your body. You might not be absorbing as much of it as you should.

Tell your healthcare team if you have diarrhoea or are sick. They need to know how your cancer treatment is being affected. And they will also be able to prescribe medicines to help.

Some drugs can affect each other, changing how much you absorb. Tell your healthcare team about any other medicines you are taking, particularly if you are taking vitamins and alternative or complementary therapies.

Supplements or therapies can interfere with how well medicines work. For example, St John’s Wort can affect how the body breaks down drugs. And laxatives can make a drug pass through your system more quickly.

Check with your healthcare team before taking any medicines you have bought yourself.

Like food, some drugs can go off. You need to keep some drugs in the fridge and others at room temperature. Follow any instructions about where and how you keep them.

Many people keep medicines in the bathroom cabinet. But because the temperature varies in bathrooms and the air may be damp, it's best not to keep medicines there.

All medicines have expiry dates. Always make sure any medicines you have are within the expiry date.

You take some cancer medicines in treatment cycles. This means you take the drug for a set period, followed by a break. For example, you might take a drug every day for a week and then not take it for 2 weeks. This 3 week period in total is one cycle of treatment.

Take your cancer drugs exactly as your doctor, specialist nurse or pharmacist has told you to. The break from treatment is important too. For many cancer drugs, it allows your body to recover.

Problems with taking medicines correctly

There are many reasons why people don’t take medicines in the way they’ve been told to.

Understanding how to take your medicine

Research shows that people sometimes don’t understand exactly how to take medicines. Or that the instructions are too complicated. Ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist to explain again. It might help to ask them to write it down.

It's also important to understand why you are taking a particular medicine and what it will mean if you don’t. If you don’t understand why you are taking a particular medicine, you are less likely to carry on taking it.

Difficulty swallowing tablets or opening packets

You might have difficulty swallowing tablets or can’t open the bottle. Let your doctor, nurse or pharmacist know. Some drugs are available in other forms, or you can have them in a different container.

Side effects

Some people may stop taking a drug if they find the side effects difficult to cope with.

There are ways to control side effects. Let your healthcare team know if you have them. They can look at ways of helping you cope with any problems.


There are things you can do to make sure you are taking your medicines as you should.

Finding out about your medicines

Find out why you are taking each drug. If you know what it’s for and how important it is, that will help you to remember.

You also need to know:

  • how you should store it
  • how long you will be taking it for
  • what the side effects are, and who you can contact if you have any problems
  • what to do if you miss a dose

Make sure you know how you should take each drug. You should know:

  • what time to take it
  • whether you can take it at the same time as other drugs
  • when to stop taking the drug
  • whether you need to take it with a full or empty stomach

We all forget to take medicines sometimes. It can help to write down when you need to take them and any instructions you need to follow.

Using a pillbox

A pillbox can be helpful if you have several different tablets to take. They have compartments for each day of the week. There are smaller compartments for different times of the day.

You fill the box once a week with your tablets, or you can get someone to do it for you.

The boxes are sometimes called monitored dose boxes. You can buy them from most pharmacies. The pharmacist will be able to offer advice.

Pill boxes are not always suitable for tablets such as chemotherapy tablets. Speak to your pharmacist first before using a pill box.

Setting an alarm

Some things can help you remember to take your medicine on time, such as:

  • setting an alarm on your watch, clock or mobile phone
  • downloading a reminder app on your mobile phone

Making a chart

You could make a chart listing all your drugs and drug times if you’re taking more than one medicine daily. This can help you to remember if you have taken your medicines. You or your carer can tick off the medicines as you take them.

Your pharmacy can also create a chart. Speak to your pharmacist if you would like a chart listing all your drugs.

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