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Supportive drugs

Supportive drugs are sometimes used to offset the damaging effects of cancer treatment. Supportive drugs are not anticancer drugs. They protect certain cells or organs from the side effects of chemotherapy drugs or radiation therapy.

Supportive drugs may also be called:

  • protective drugs
  • chemoprotective drugs
  • radioprotective drugs
  • cytoprotective agent

Supportive drugs and their effects
Supportive drugTreatment that may cause damageTarget organEffect

allopurinol (Zyloprim)

many chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy



Allopurinol prevents the buildup of uric acid in the body, which can lead to kidney damage or joint pain.

Uric acid levels can increase after chemotherapy or radiation therapy, especially when they are given to treat blood cell (hematologic) cancers like lymphoma or leukemia.

rasburicase (Fasturtec)

many chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy


joints, heart, nervous system

Rasburicase is most often given to children with blood cell (hematologic) cancers like lymphoma or leukemia. It is sometimes given to people who are at high risk for tumour lysis syndrome.

amifostine (Ethyol)

radiation therapy


cells in the mouth

kidneys, bone marrow

Amifostine is sometimes given to protect people from the harmful effects that high-dose radiation therapy for certain head and neck cancers can have on cells in the mouth (such as dry mouth).

It is sometimes given to protect the kidneys and bone marrow when certain chemotherapy drugs are given.

dexrazoxane (Zinecard)

anthracycline drugs, such as doxorubicin (Adriamycin)


Dexrazoxane may help prevent heart damage from chemotherapy drugs in the anthracycline family.

leucovorin (folinic acid)


5-fluorouracil (Adrucil, 5-FU)

healthy cells

Leucovorin protects normal cells (such as blood cells or cells lining the gastrointestinal tract) from damage and reduces the severity of side effects when high doses of methotrexate are given. It may also be referred to as leucovorin rescue.

Leucovorin is also sometimes given with 5-fluorouracil to make it more effective. In this case, it is not used as a “rescue” drug”.

mesna (Uromitexan)

ifosfamide (Ifex), cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan, Procytox)


Mesna prevents urinary tract problems and protects the bladder from damage.

colony-stimulating factors (CSFs, growth factors)

many chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy

bone marrow, white blood cells, red blood cells

CSFs increase the number of certain blood cells and raise blood cell counts.

Granulocyte colony-stimulating factors (G-CSF), such as filgrastim (Neupogen) and pegfilgrastim (Neulasta), stimulate the bone marrow to make new white blood cells. G-CSFs can help prevent or treat neutropenia (a low white blood cell count), which can be caused by chemotherapy or the cancer itself (especially if cancer has spread to the bone marrow).

Erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs or erythrocyte growth factors), such as epoetin alfa (Eprex, erythropoietin) and darbepoetin (Aranesp), stimulate the bone marrow to make red blood cells. ESAs are used to treat or prevent anemia.

Researchers are developing new drugs to protect against other side effects of cancer treatment.

For more detailed information on specific drugs, go to sources of drug information.

Side effects of supportive drugs

Side effects can occur with any type of treatment, but not everyone has them or experiences them in the same way. Side effects of supportive drugs will depend mainly on the:

  • type of drug(s)
  • dose
  • person’s overall health

It is important to report side effects to the healthcare team.


A reduction in the number of healthy red blood cells.


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