Chemotherapy drugs are part of many patients' overall cancer treatment. Despite safety precautions and the diligence of healthcare providers, sometimes physicians and nurses make medication errors.

Because chemotherapy is so potent, mistakes can be life threatening, especially for children, who are three times more likely to be victims of medication errors. Ordering and dosing medication is more complex for children, so miscalculations or rounding can cause serious harm. Children undergoing cancer treatment are at even greater risk because the dangers inherent in chemotherapy compound dosing challenges.

The Prevalence of Errors

In one study of more than 10,000 adult and pediatric chemotherapy orders from 1,606 patients, there was a medical error rate of 3 percent. Eighty-two percent of the errors in adults were potentially harmful and one-third of the pediatric cases were serious. There was a 17 percent error rate in another study, which looked at more than 22,000 chemotherapy orders.

Medication errors can occur in several ways. In this second study, 3.8 percent were caused by the chemotherapy, 4.5 percent were due to incorrect patient data, and 8.7 percent were caused by missing written informed consent forms.

How to Protect Yourself or a Loved One

The Institute for Safe Medications Practices promotes patient responsibility in preventing medication errors and recommends several steps to ensure you are not the victim of an inadvertent, but serious, mistake.

  • Educate yourself about your cancer and treatment so you know exactly what to expect.
  • Listen carefully and write down the names (including brand and generic) and doses of every medication your physician prescribes.
  • Discuss anything that is confusing or unfamiliar based on your research.
  • Keep records of all your chemotherapy treatments.
  • Ask your doctor about your chemotherapy treatment down to the smallest detail, including the color of the drugs, how long each treatment will last, how the chemo will be administered, the duration of treatment, and any side effects you might experience. This way, you'll know if something might be wrong.
  • Have the nurse confirm the medication with you before you take it and have him or her confirm who you are and the address they have on record for you. It's easy to confuse patients who have the same or similar last name.
  • Bring an advocate--who can also be an extra pair of eyes and ears--whenever possible.

Above all, remember: it's your health and safety. Be vigilant and you can protect yourself from chemotherapy errors.


National Cancer Institute. "Chemotherapy and you." Web. 29 June 2007.

"Ten point plan for avoiding drug errors." The Clinical Services Journal.  Web. January 2010.

Institute for Safe Medication Practices. "How you can help to ensure your safety when receiving cancer treatments." Web.

Pesheva, Katerina. "Digital is safer: Online systems reduce medication errors in children." The JHU Gazette. Web. 2006.

Cohen MR, Anderson RW, Attilio RM, Green L, Muller RJ, and Pruemer JM. "Preventing medication errors in cancer chemotherapy." American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy 53(7) 1996: 737-46. Web.

Markert A, Thierry V, Kleber M, Behrens M, and Engelhardt M. "Chemotherapy safety and severe adverse events in cancer patients: strategies to efficiently avoid chemotherapy errors in in- and outpatient treatment." International Journal of Cancer 124(3)(2009): 722-8. Web.

Gandhi TK, Bartel SB, Shulman LN, Verrier D, Burdick E, Cleary A, Rothschild JM, Leape LL, and Bates DW. "Medication safety in the ambulatory chemotherapy setting." Cancer 104(11) (2005): 2477-83. Web.