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Supportive drugs

Supportive drugs are sometimes used to lessen the harmful side effects of cancer treatment by protecting certain cells or organs. Supportive drugs are not used to treat cancer. Supportive drugs are also called protective drugs.

The following are some supportive drugs used during cancer treatment.

Allopurinol (Zyloprim) 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 cancers such as lymphoma or leukemia.

Rasburicase (Fasturtec) helps clear uric acid from the blood and may be given when treatment could cause tumour lysis syndrome. Tumour lysis syndrome develops most often during treatment for acute leukemia, aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma and some solid tumours.

Amifostine (Ethyol) may be given to protect the cells in the mouth and lessen the severity of dry mouth caused by radiation therapy for certain head and neck cancers. It is sometimes given to protect the kidneys and bone marrow from certain chemotherapy drugs.

Dexrazoxane (Zinecard) may help prevent heart damage from chemotherapy drugs in the anthracycline family such as doxorubicin (Adriamycin).

Folinic acid (leucovorin) protects normal blood cells or cells lining the gastrointestinal tract from damage and lessens the severity of side effects from high doses of methotrexate. It may also be referred to as leucovorin rescue.

Mesna (Uromitexan) protects the urinary tract and the bladder from damage that can be caused by drugs such as ifosfamide (Ifex) and cyclophosphamide (Procytox).

Colony-stimulating factors (CSFs, growth factors) stimulate the bone marrow to increase the production of blood cells. This helps lower the risk of infection due to low white blood cell counts or anemia and low red blood cell counts.

Sometimes if blood cell counts are low, cancer treatment needs to be stopped or the dose needs to be lowered. CSFs allow people to continue having cancer treatment with the full dose. In some cases, having treatment with CSFs allows higher doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy to be given.

Types of colony-stimulating factors include:

  • Granulocyte colony-stimulating factors (G-CSFs), such as filgrastim (Neupogen, Grastofil) and pegfilgrastim (Neulasta), stimulate the production of neutrophils, which are a type of white blood cell (granulocyte).
  • Granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factors (GM-CSFs) such as sargramostim (Leukine) stimulate the production of 2 types of white blood cells (granulocytes and macrophages).
  • Erythrocyte growth factors such as epoetin alfa (Eprex, erythropoietin) and darbepoetin (Aranesp) stimulate the bone marrow to make red blood cells.

Side effects of supportive drugs

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment, but everyone’s experience is different. Not everyone has side effects or experiences them in the same way. Side effects of supportive drugs will depend mainly on:

  • the type of drug
  • the dose
  • your overall health

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

Information about specific drugs

Details on specific drugs change regularly. Find out more about sources of drug information and where to get details on specific drugs.


A type of white blood cell that helps fight infection.

The 3 types of granulocytes are neutrophils, eosinophils and basophils.

Also called granular leukocyte or polymorphonuclear leukocyte (PMN).


A type of white blood cell that helps fight infection by surrounding and killing foreign cells or micro-organisms, removing dead cells and stimulating other immune system cells. 

Macrophages develop from monocytes that have moved from the blood into tissues.

Macrophages are a type of phagocyte (a white blood cell that surrounds and kills bacteria or micro-organisms, eats foreign material, removes old or damaged cells and helps to boost the immune system).