Weighing the Pros and Cons of Antineoplastic Drugs

Antineoplastic drugs are medicines used to treat cancer and other diseases. It’s a general name for drugs that stop tumor cells from growing and dividing. Antineoplastic drugs are also called anticancer drugs, chemotherapy, cytotoxic drugs, oncology drugs, and cancer drugs.

The goal of antineoplastic drugs in cancer treatment is to stop or block the growth of cells in a tumor. These drugs may also treat arthritis, multiple sclerosis, benign (noncancerous) tumors, and other noncancer medical conditions.

This article includes a list of common types of antineoplastic drugs, with examples. It discusses the basics of antineoplastic drug side effects. It describes the differences and similarities among antineoplastic medications, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy.

A person getting cancer treatment in an infusion center talked to a healthcare provider, with both wearing medical masks

FatCamera / Getty Images

Is Antineoplastic the Same as Chemotherapy?

"Neoplasia" is another word for "abnormal and uncontrolled cell growth." Tumors develop when cells grow and divide when they’re not supposed to. A neoplasm can be cancerous (malignant) or not (benign).

Malignant tumors, also called cancers, grow into nearby tissues and sometimes spread to other parts of the body.

An antineoplastic is any drug or treatment that kills or stops tumor cells from growing. They can include radiation treatments and biologics, including immunotherapy and targeted therapy. 

Chemotherapy drugs are one type of antineoplastic drug. Not all antineoplastic drugs are chemotherapy, but all chemotherapy drugs are antineoplastic drugs. 

More than 1,900 antineoplastic drugs are cataloged in the National Cancer Institute’s SEER RX (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) database.

Uses During Treatment

If a healthcare provider suggests treatment with antineoplastic drugs, these drugs will be tailored to your tumor, cancer, or disease. 

Antineoplastic drugs can be used in combination with each other and with other procedures, like surgery. For example, radiation and chemotherapy are often used together.

They are often used before or after surgery or paired with other antineoplastic treatments like immunotherapy, targeted therapy, or hormone therapy. The timing of antineoplastic therapy during cancer treatment includes:

  • Neoadjuvant therapies, including chemotherapy or radiation, are given before a person gets surgery to remove a tumor.
  • Adjunct therapies are given simultaneously (for example, chemotherapy and radiation simultaneously).
  • Adjuvant therapies are given after surgery to shrink or kill any remaining tumor cells and reduce the risk of cancer coming back. 

The specific combinations of antineoplastic drugs your healthcare provider recommends will be based on your disease, how advanced it is, your general health, and how you have reacted to previous treatments. 

Antineoplastic Drug List and Types

Antineoplastics are a large group of medicines and treatments. They have many different chemical forms and work in different ways. There are multiple ways to characterize them.

Scientists sometimes characterize them by their chemical makeup or mechanism of action. They may be divided up by the types of cancer they treat.

Generally, drugs that treat cancer fall into five types, as follows:

  • Chemotherapy 
  • Radiation
  • Targeted therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Hormone therapy

One way of classifying antineoplastics is by how they work generally. They may be called nonspecific or targeted.

Nonspecific antineoplastics attack any fast-growing cells in the body, including cancer cells. This is typically how chemotherapies and radiation work. These agents are not specific to cancer cells.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs stop the growth of actively dividing cells and often kill them. Chemotherapy comes in many forms, including:

Radiation Therapy

Radiation is a focused beam of energy from an object or fluid inserted into the body (called radiopharmaceuticals or radionuclides) or from a machine outside the body. The energy kills cells in the area in a nonspecific way, meaning it kills all cells in an area.

Common types of radiation treatment include:

  • External beam
  • Internal radiation (brachytherapy)
  • Oral or systemic radiation (radiopharmaceuticals)

Radiation therapy drugs include:

  • Radioactive iodine
  • Xofigo (radium 223 dichloride)
  • Pluvicto (lutetium Lu 177 vipivotide tetraxetan)

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy uses the tumor cells' characteristics, like the proteins they make, to find and kill cancer. These drugs include:

Some common examples of targeted antineoplastics include:

  • Avastin (bevacizumab)
  • Velcade (bortezomib)
  • Gleevec (imatinib)
  • Erbitux (cetuximab)

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system to attack and kill cancer. This may be done in a targeted way. Often these drugs (and other targeted therapies) are monoclonal antibodies, a copy of our immune system’s anti-invader proteins created outside the body.

Types of antineoplastic immunotherapy include:

Standard antineoplastic immunotherapies include:

Hormone Therapy

Hormone therapy changes the body’s hormones to stop the growth of cancer cells that use them to grow. Examples of antineoplastic hormone therapy include:

Standard hormone therapies include:

Benefits vs. Drawbacks 

The benefit of antineoplastic drugs is their ability to kill tumor cells, including cancers, and treat other diseases, like autoimmune diseases.

Your best chance of beating a disease like cancer is following your healthcare provider's suggestions. Get a second opinion if you're unsure of your oncologist's treatment plan. If you have questions about their choices, ask them.

But antineoplastic treatment can be grueling, long, and have side effects that make daily life challenging. You may need to take time off from your job to get and heal from cancer treatment. 

The side effects of certain antineoplastic drugs can be hard to deal with. Discuss your treatment plan with your care team if you have problematic side effects. Talk to a palliative care specialist about your treatment choices and if they match your treatment goals. 

Depending on the type of cancer and how advanced it is, these treatments aren't always helpful. It's possible that even with prolonged, aggressive treatment, cancer may win. These aggressive treatments can take time away from your loved ones, strain your mental and physical health, and cause side effects and complications. 

Cancer treatment also is costly. The cost of care for the first year of a cancer diagnosis is over $45,000 on average. In the last year of life, it's over $100,000.

Cancer Care Costs in the United States
Cost of: End-of-life care (the year before cancer death) Initial care (the first year after diagnosis) Continuing care (time between diagnosis and death)
Medical services $109,727 $43,516 $5,518
Oral prescription drugs $4,372 $1,874 $1,041
The projected cost per year for each person getting treatment for cancer between the years of 2010 and 2020 is divided into three treatment phases. Data from the National Cancer Institute and Mariotto, et al.

Your health insurance should cover most of your cancer care. If you need help paying for cancer treatment, you may wish to look into several financial assistance programs to help with cancer-related costs. They include:

  • Government-subsidized programs
  • Community-based services
  • Organizations created by families or cancer patients

Side Effects 

The side effects of antineoplastic drugs will vary based on the types of treatment and dose, as well as a person’s general health. As a group, some types of antineoplastic medications are better tolerated than others, but they can’t generally be swapped out. 

Your care team will aim to keep the side effects of antineoplastic drugs low, so let them know if the side effects of your treatment are problematic.

Typical side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Mouth sores
  • Digestive distress, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation 

Antineoplastic immunotherapy may be injected or infused. This may cause:

  • A reaction where the drug enters your body
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Digestive issues
  • Increased risk of infection

Effects on Pregnancy and Fertility

Many antineoplastic therapies may cause issues with pregnancy and fertility. People taking antineoplastic drugs are at an increased risk of infertility, miscarriage, or effects on the fetus resulting in congenital (present at birth) disabilities.

Antineoplastic hormone therapy side effects depend on the type of hormone the drug disrupts. For example, drugs that decrease estrogen may cause:

  • Bone loss
  • Osteoporosis (progressive bone thinning)
  • Fractures

Side effects of antineoplastic radiation include fatigue, skin changes, and other side effects based on the body part targeted.

Common side effects of targeted antineoplastic therapy include digestive issues and liver problems.

Are Antineoplastic Drugs Toxic?

Antineoplastic drugs are often toxic. Chemotherapies, for example, kill any fast-growing cells. They kill other cells in the body that are not cancers. These can include the digestive tract lining cells and the cells responsible for hair growth.

People getting treatment for diseases aren’t the only ones at risk for exposure to toxic antineoplastic drugs. The people who work with these drugs to treat people may be exposed and have health effects, including:

  • Skin rashes
  • Infertility, miscarriage, and children with congenital disabilities
  • Leukemia and other cancers

The risk they run depends on how much of a given drug the worker is exposed to and how toxic it is. 

Depending on the antineoplastic drugs, you may also receive instructions on how to protect others in your household from exposure to the drugs.

How to Take Antineoplastics 

Take antineoplastic drugs as your healthcare provider recommends. The drugs and doses used differ by the disease being treated and how advanced the condition is. 

You may need to visit a special infusion clinic for doses of chemotherapy or infusions of immunotherapy or targeted therapy drugs. You may need special procedures to prepare for and receive radiation treatments. 

Cancer treatment can be grueling, but thankfully these are often short-term treatments that you’ll heal from after the cancer is destroyed. If you’re having problematic side effects that make you not want to take your antineoplastics, talk to your care team. They may be able to reduce your dose or suggest another drug.

Self-Care On Antineoplastics 

If you’re on antineoplastics, taking care of yourself is crucial. These drugs can be hard on your body and cause some side effects, especially chemotherapy. When taking antineoplastics, take care of your body as if it belonged to a loved one.

Drink water and eat healthy foods, get some light movement during the day by walking or doing yoga, and ensure you get enough sleep. Try to reduce stressors in work and family; this may include taking a leave from employment if you’re very sick. 

Make sure to take care of your mental health as well. Do things you enjoy, like listening to music and talking with friends and family. Get involved in a support group or speak to the counselor or therapist on your care team. 

Consider complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatment options that may help relax you and reduce side effects. These may include aromatherapy, acupuncture, massage, reflexology, meditation, and light yoga. Talk to your care team about good options for you.

Summary 

Neoplasia is abnormal, uncontrolled cell growth. Antineoplastic drugs kill or stop tumor cells from growing.

More than 1900 antineoplastic drugs are in the National Cancer Institute's database. Generally, drugs that treat cancer fall into five types:

  • Chemotherapy 
  • Radiation
  • Targeted therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Hormone therapy

Antineoplastics are used in many ways. If a healthcare provider suggests treatment with antineoplastic drugs, these suggestions will be tailored to your tumor, cancer, or disease. 

Some antineoplastics can have side effects. Aggressive antineoplastic treatment can consume your life. For some people, aggressive antineoplastic therapy isn't worth the downsides. They may have advanced cancer, a negative prognosis, or health issues.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are examples of antineoplastic drugs?

    Antineoplastic drugs come in all types and kinds. They are medications that slow tumor growth or kill cancer cells.

    Some examples from the various type of anticancer drugs include:

  • Do antineoplastics cause or cure cancer?

    The definition of "antineoplastic" is something that fights or kills cancer. So by definition, antineoplastic drugs fight cancer. But in some instances, they can also be toxic and cause cancer.

  • Are antineoplastic drugs worth it?

    Antineoplastic is a catch-all for any drugs that treat cancer or other diseases caused by an overgrowth of cells. Without treatment, cancer can kill. Sometimes cancer kills even with treatment. Other conditions treated with antineoplastic drugs can also be deadly. 

    But sometimes when cancer is very advanced, has a dire outlook, or a person's health doesn't support treatment, oncologists (cancer specialists) and palliative care teams recommend against specific antineoplastic therapies, like aggressive chemotherapy. They'd likely recommend some medicines to slow cancer growth or treat cancer symptoms.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Jennifer Welsh
Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor with over ten years of experience under her belt. She’s previously worked and written for WIRED Science, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, LiveScience, and Business Insider.