Common Cancer Drugs | Medical News Today


Doctors classify cancer drugs based on how they work in the body.

The The most common types of cancer drugs include:

  • alkylating agents
  • nitrosoureas
  • antimetabolites
  • anti-tumor antibiotics
  • plant alkaloids
  • corticosteroids
  • various drugs that do not fit into any of these categories

The sections below examine each of these types of medications in more detail.

Alkylating agents

The National Cancer Institute says alkylating agents were one of the earliest cancer drugs and remain among the most common treatments today. They work by damaging the DNA of cancer cells to prevent them from dividing.

Here are some examples of alkylating agents:

  • altretamine
  • bendamustine
  • busulfan
  • carboplatin
  • chlorambucil
  • cisplatin
  • cyclophosphamide
  • dacarbazine
  • ifosfamide
  • mechlorethamine
  • melphalan
  • oxaliplatin
  • temozolomide
  • thiotepa
  • trabectedin

Doctors mainly use alkylating agents to treat slow-growing cancers because they are less effective against rapidly dividing cells. For example, doctors can use these drugs to treat:

Some Side effects alkylating agents can include:

Alkylating agents damage the DNA of cancer cells, but they can also affect cells in the bone marrow, which can cause leukemia.

The risk of developing leukemia is small, but it increases with larger doses of alkylating agents. The risk of developing leukemia is highest around 5-10 years after treatment.


Nitrosoureas are a subcategory of alkylating agents which can cross the blood-brain barrier. This barrier protects the brain from many substances present in the body. However, crossing the blood-brain barrier is important for treating some cancers, especially brain cancer.

Nitrosoureas work by attaching themselves to the DNA strands of cancer cells. This prevents them from dividing.

Here are some examples of nitrosoureas:

  • Carmustine
  • lomustine
  • streptozocin


Antimetabolites work by convincing cancer cells to consume them then preventing their division into new cells.

Here are some examples of antimetabolites:

  • azacitidine
  • 5-fluorouracil
  • 6-mercaptopurine
  • capecitabine
  • cladribine
  • clofarabine
  • floxuridine
  • fludarabine
  • gemcitabine
  • hydroxyurea
  • methotrexate

Antimetabolites are generally effective in treating:

Some Side effects antimetabolites include:

Antitumor antibiotics

Antitumor antibiotics are chemicals that interfere with enzymes that promote cancer cell growth.

Anthracyclines are a type of anti-tumor antibiotic. They bind to the DNA of rapid growth cancer cells to prevent them from reproducing.

Some examples of anthracyclines understand:

  • daunorubicin
  • doxorubicin
  • liposomal doxorubicin
  • epirubicin
  • idarubicin
  • valrubicin

There are also several anti-tumor antibiotics that are not anthracyclines, including bleomycin, dactinomycin, and mitoxantrone.

Doctors can use anti-tumor antibiotics to treat:

A major side effect antitumor antibiotics is an increased risk of heart damage.

This side effect is rare, but it can occur with high doses of the drug. For this reason, doctors usually limit the amount of anti-tumor antibiotics a person can take.

Plant alkaloids

These are drugs that come from plants and have anti-tumor properties. They have different names depending on the enzyme they act on.

Mitotic inhibitors, for example, are a class of plant alkaloids that prevent cancer cells from replicating or prevent enzymes from creating proteins to support reproduction in cancer cells. Some examples of these drugs include taxanes and vinca alkaloids.

Topoisomerase inhibitors are a class of plant alkaloids that also have different names depending on the enzyme they work on.

Topoisomerase I inhibitors, for example, interrupt DNA replication in cancer cells. One example is irinotecan. There are also topoisomerase II inhibitors, an example of which is etoposide.

Plant alkaloids are useful for treating several cancers, including:

Some possible side effects include:


These are synthetic versions of natural hormones that can reduce inflammation and treat cancer.

Some corticosteroids useful in the treatment of cancer include prednisone, methylprednisolone, and dexamethasone. Their anti-inflammatory properties can reduce nausea, vomiting, and appetite problems associated with chemotherapy.

Some possible side effects of corticosteroids include:

There are also several alternative therapies for cancer. The following sections examine some of them in more detail.

Targeted therapies

Cancer cells grow, divide, and spread throughout the body based on instructions they receive from proteins. Targeted therapies attack these proteins and prevent them from working effectively. They can help treat cancer in several ways, depending on the type of cancer.


The body’s immune system usually searches for and kills unusual cells around the body. Doctors use immunotherapy to help the body identify and attack cancer cells. This can cause side effects such as flu-like symptoms or skin reactions at the needle site.


This uses high doses of radiation to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. Doctors use a machine to emit radiation from outside the body or place a radiation device inside the body. This option can also cause side effects, including fatigue and skin irritation.


Doctors sometimes recommend surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. This is usually when the cancer is localized and has not spread to other parts of the body.

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