Gallium nitrate is an intravenous medication given to cancer patients who experience a condition called hypercalcemia, or elevated blood calcium levels. It works by changing the way that bone cells called osteoclasts release calcium into the bloodstream. In most cases, gallium nitrate is administered through a slow drip in a hospital or clinic over the course of five days, or until blood-calcium levels are completely stabilized. The drug can interact adversely with other medications, so it is important for patients to follow their doctors' instructions exactly before, during, and after receiving gallium nitrate.
Hypercalcemia is a common side effect of many types of cancers, especially those that affect the breasts and lungs. Hormonal imbalances and after-effects of cancer therapy can further worsen the condition. If calcium levels become significantly elevated, a person can experience nausea, vomiting, constipation, and severe body aches. Gallium nitrate reduces calcium levels by blocking the activity of osteoclasts, thereby stopping them from breaking down bone and releasing stored calcium.
Before deciding to administer gallium nitrate, a doctor typically conducts a thorough medical screening. He or she tests blood and urine samples to determine exact calcium levels, and takes imaging scans of the kidneys to look for signs of damage. Patients who are undergoing chemotherapy and those who take medications that might harm the kidneys are not good candidates for gallium nitrate treatment.
The medication is typically administered in a hospital setting by a physician or a trained nurse. An intravenous catheter is placed directly into a vein in the arm, and a mixture of gallium nitrate and hydrating fluids are slowly released. In most cases, patients are restricted to minimal physical activity and very strict diets during the five-day treatment. Doctors carefully monitor blood-calcium levels throughout treatment to determine when the catheter can be removed.
Gallium nitrate can cause side effects in some patients. The most common problems include increased thirst, muscle weakness, nausea, and blood in the urine. Some patients also experience abdominal pain, cramps, muscle weakness, and mental confusion. Rarely, an allergic reaction can occur that immediately restricts the airways and causes a full-body rash. If a reaction occurs, treatment is ended immediately and emergency care is provided.
Most people who receive hypercalcemia treatment notice symptom relief within a few weeks of their hospital stays. If calcium levels begin to rise again, another round of treatment can be provided after about one month. With careful monitoring and appropriate treatment for the underlying cancer, patients are usually able to recover from the condition.