ECF

ECF is the name of a chemotherapy combination. It includes the following drugs. How you pronounce the drug names are in brackets: 

  • E – epirubicin (eh-pee-roo-bih-sin)

  • C – cisplatin (sis-pla-tin)

  • F – fluorouracil (floor-oh-yoor-uh-sil). Fluorouracil is also called 5FU.

It is a treatment for stomach cancer and cancer of the food pipe (oesophagus).

How does ECF work?

These chemotherapy drugs destroy quickly dividing cells, such as cancer cells.

How do you have ECF?

You have ECF into your bloodstream (intravenously).

You might have treatment through a long plastic tube that goes into a large vein in your chest. The tube stays in place throughout the course of treatment. This can be a:

  • central line
  • PICC line
  • portacath

How often do you have ECF?

You have ECF chemotherapy as cycles of treatment, each lasting 3 weeks (21 days). You might have between 3 and 8 cycles. Your treatment plan depends on the type of cancer you have.

On the first day of the cycle you have
  • epirubicin as an injection into your bloodstream (intravenously)
  • cisplatin as a drip into your bloodstream over 1 to 4 hours
  • extra fluids through a drip before and after the cisplatin to protect your kidneys
  • fluorouracil as a drip through a pump continuously for 21 days

The fluorouracil pump might be a small portable one if you have a long line. This means that you can go home with it. You then go back to the hospital for the nurses to refill or disconnect it. Your doctor or nurse will tell you when you need to go back.

Tests

You have blood tests before and during your treatment. They check your levels of blood cells and other substances in the blood. They also check how well your liver and kidneys are working.

Before starting treatment with fluorouracil (5FU) you have a blood test to check levels of an enzyme called dihydropyrimidine dehydrogenase (DPD). A low DPD level might mean you are more likely to have severe side effects from this chemotherapy, so you may start treatment with a lower amount (dose) of the drug or have a different treatment. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will talk to you about this.

You might also have tests to check how your heart is working during treatment.

What are the side effects of ECF?

Side effects can vary from person to person. They also depend on what other treatments you're having. 

When to contact your team

Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will go through the possible side effects. They will monitor you during treatment and check how you are at your appointments. Contact your advice line as soon as possible if:

  • you have severe side effects 

  • your side effects aren’t getting any better

  • your side effects are getting worse

Early treatment can help manage side effects better. 

Contact your advice line immediately if you have signs of infection, including a temperature above 37.5C or below 36C.

We haven't listed all the side effects here. Remember it is very unlikely that you will have all of these side effects. But you might have some of them at the same time.

Common side effects

These side effects happen in more than 10 in 100 people (more than 10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

Increased risk of getting an infection

Increased risk of getting an infection is due to a drop in white blood cells. Symptoms include a change in temperature, aching muscles, headaches, feeling cold and shivery and generally unwell. You might have other symptoms depending on where the infection is.

Infections can sometimes be life threatening. You should contact your advice line urgently if you think you have an infection. 

Breathlessness and looking pale

You might be breathless and look pale due to a drop in red blood cells. This is called anaemia.

Bruising bleeding gums or nosebleeds

This is due to a drop in the number of platelets in your blood. These blood cells help the blood to clot when we cut ourselves. You may have nosebleeds or bleeding gums after brushing your teeth. Or you may have lots of tiny red spots or bruises on your arms or legs (known as petechiae).

Tiredness and weakness (fatigue)

Tiredness and weakness (fatigue) can happen during and after treatment. Doing gentle exercises each day can keep your energy up. Don't push yourself, rest when you start to feel tired and ask others for help.

Feeling or being sick

Feeling or being sick is usually well controlled with anti sickness medicines. It might help to avoid fatty or fried foods, eat small meals and snacks and take regular sips of water. Relaxation techniques might also help.

It is important to take anti sickness medicines as prescribed even if you don’t feel sick. It is easier to prevent sickness rather than treat it once it has started.

Loss of appetite

You might lose your appetite for various reasons while having cancer treatment. Sickness, taste changes or tiredness can put you off food and drinks.

Hair loss

You could lose all your hair. This includes your eyelashes, eyebrows, underarms, legs and sometimes pubic hair. Your hair will usually grow back once treatment has finished but it is likely to be softer. It may grow back a different colour or be curlier than before. 

Sore mouth

Mouth sores and ulcers can be painful. It helps to keep your mouth and teeth clean, drink plenty of fluids and avoid acidic foods such as lemons. Chewing gum can help to keep your mouth moist. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have ulcers.

Diarrhoea 

Contact your advice line if you have diarrhoea. For example, in one day you have 2 or more loose bowel movements than usual. If you have a stoma, you might have more output than normal. Your doctor may give you anti diarrhoea medicine to take home with you after treatment.

Try to eat small meals and snacks regularly. It’s best to try to have a healthy balanced diet if you can. You don’t necessarily need to stop eating foods that contain fibre. But if your diet is normally very high in fibre, it might help to cut back on high fibre foods such as beans, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, bran and raw vegetables. 

Drink plenty to try and replace the fluid lost. Aim for 8 to 10 glasses per day.

Redness, soreness or peeling on palms or soles of feet 

The skin on your hands and feet may become sore, red, or may peel. You may also have tingling, numbness, pain and dryness. This is called hand-foot syndrome or palmar plantar syndrome.

Moisturise your skin regularly. Your healthcare team will tell you what moisturiser to use.

Red or pink urine

This won't harm you. It’s due to the colour of the chemotherapy and lasts for one or two days.

Heart changes 

You may have changes to how your heart works such as your heart rhythm. Tests such as a heart trace (ECG) Open a glossary item might pick this up.

High levels of uric acid and other substances in the blood

You may have changes in levels of minerals and salts in your blood, including low levels of sodium or high levels of uric acid (causing gout). You have regular blood tests during treatment to check this.

Hot flushes

We have some tips for coping with hot flushes in women and hot flushes in men. This information also includes some of the possible treatments. Talk to your doctor if your hot flushes are hard to cope with. They might be able to prescribe you some medicines.

Inflammation of the veins (phlebitis)

This might happen during the infusion or after. Symptoms include pain, tenderness, swelling, warm itchy skin, colour and texture changes where the chemotherapy is going in.

During the infusion if you have these symptoms tell your nurse straight away as the drug could be leaking into the tissue and causing damage to the tissue.

Eye problems

This might include inflammation of the conjunctiva (conjunctivitis) and inflammation of the cornea (keratitis).

More rarely you might have watery eyes, changes in vision, sensitivity to sunlight, or side to side movements of the eyes (nystagmus).

High temperature

You might get a high temperature (fever) for a few hours after having this treatment. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have a fever.

Skin problems

Skin problems include a skin rash, dry skin and itching. This usually goes back to normal when your treatment finishes. Your healthcare team can tell you what products you can use on your skin to help.

You might have darkening of the skin. This usually goes back to normal a few months after finishing treatment.

Occasionally a skin rash can be severe if you have chemotherapy soon after completing radiotherapy. This is called radiotherapy recall.

Liver changes 

You might have liver changes that are usually mild and unlikely to cause symptoms. They usually go back to normal when treatment finishes. You have regular blood tests to check for any changes in the way your liver is working.

Low levels of sodium in your blood

Sodium is a salt and symptoms of low sodium include:

  • headaches
  • feeling or being sick
  • confusion
  • restlessness
  • seizures

Your sodium levels will most likely go back to normal when you finish treatment. You have regular blood tests during treatment to check this.

Difficulty breathing

You may have difficulty breathing with wheezing and coughing. Let your healthcare team know straight away if this happens. 

Occasional side effects

These side effects happen in between 1 and 10 out of every 100 people (between 1 and 10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

  • lack of fluid in the body (dehydration)

  • tummy (abdominal) pain

  • blood clots that are life threatening; signs are pain, swelling and redness where the clot is. Feeling breathless can be a sign of a blood clot on the lung. Contact your advice line or doctor straight away if you have any of these symptoms.

Rare side effects

These side effects happen in fewer than 1 in 100 people (fewer than 1%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

  • an allergic reaction that can cause a rash, shortness of breath, redness or swelling of the face and dizziness - some allergic reactions can be life threatening alert your nurse or doctor if notice any of these symptoms

  • low blood pressure

  • blood cancers such as acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) and acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL). Talk to your doctor if this is of concern to you.

  • a strong feeling of happiness, confidence or both (euphoria)

  • headaches

  • dizziness

  • symptoms of Parkinson's disease such as shaking hands

  • feeling very sleepy

  • low magnesium

  • changes to hearing

  • unsteadiness and confusion

Coping with side effects

We have more information about side effects and tips on how to cope with them.

What else do you need to know?

Other medicines, foods and drink

Cancer drugs can interact with medicines, herbal products, and some food and drinks. We are unable to list all the possible interactions that may happen. An example is grapefruit or grapefruit juice which can increase the side effects of certain drugs.

Tell your healthcare team about any medicines you are taking. This includes vitamins, herbal supplements and over the counter remedies. Also let them know about any other medical conditions or allergies you may have.

Pregnancy and contraception

This drug may harm a baby developing in the womb. It is important not to become pregnant or get someone pregnant while you are having treatment with this drug and for at least 7 months afterwards.

Talk to your doctor or nurse about effective contraception before starting treatment. Let them know straight away if you or your partner become pregnant while having treatment.

Loss of fertility

You may not be able to become pregnant or father a child after treatment with these drugs. Talk to your doctor before starting treatment if you think you may want to have a baby in the future.

Men might be able to store sperm before starting treatment. And women might be able to store eggs or ovarian tissue. But these services are not available in every hospital, so you would need to ask your doctor about this.    

Breastfeeding

Don’t breastfeed during this treatment. This is because the drugs may come through in your breast milk.

Treatment for other conditions

If you are having tests or treatment for anything else, always mention your cancer treatment. For example, if you are visiting your dentist.

Immunisations

Don’t have immunisations with live vaccines while you’re having treatment and for up to 12 months afterwards. The length of time depends on the treatment you are having. Ask your doctor or pharmacist how long you should avoid live vaccinations.

In the UK, live vaccines include rubella, mumps, measles, BCG, yellow fever and one of the shingles vaccines called Zostavax.

You can have:

  • other vaccines, but they might not give you as much protection as usual
  • the flu vaccine (as an injection)
  • the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine - talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the best time to have it in relation to your cancer treatment

Members of your household who are aged 5 years or over are also able to have the COVID-19 vaccine. This is to help lower your risk of getting COVID-19 while having cancer treatment and until your immune system Open a glossary item recovers from treatment.

Contact with others who have had immunisations - You can be in contact with other people who have had live vaccines as injections. Avoid close contact with people who have recently had live vaccines taken by mouth (oral vaccines) such as the oral typhoid vaccine. Sometimes people who have had the live shingles vaccine can get a shingles type rash. If this happens they should keep the area covered.

If your immune system is severely weakened, you should avoid contact with children who have had the flu vaccine as a nasal spray as this is a live vaccine. This is for 2 weeks following their vaccination.

Babies have the live rotavirus vaccine. The virus is in the baby’s poo for about 2 weeks and could make you ill if your immunity is low. Get someone else to change their nappies during this time if you can. If this isn't possible, wash your hands well after changing their nappy.

More information about this treatment

For further information about this treatment and possible side effects go to the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website. You can find the patient information leaflet on this website.

You can report any side effect you have to the Medicines Health and Regulatory Authority (MHRA) as part of their Yellow Card Scheme.

Related links