Managing side effects of targeted therapy

Although targeted therapy minimises harm to healthy cells, it can still have side effects. These vary greatly for each person depending on the drug you have and how your body responds. Some people don’t experience any side effects, while others have several.

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Possible side effects

Targeted therapy drugs commonly cause skin problems, for example:

  • sensitivity to sunlight, skin redness, swelling and dry, flaky skin
  • a rash that looks like acne or pimples on the face, scalp or upper body (acneiform rash)
  • a skin reaction on the palms and soles causing tenderness and blisters (hand-foot syndrome).

Other common side effects include fever, tiredness, joint aches, nausea, headaches, diarrhoea, heavy bleeding and bruising, and high blood pressure.

Less commonly, some targeted therapy drugs can affect the way the heart, thyroid or liver works, or increase the risk of getting an infection.

  — Patricia

Some people can react to the infusion process (e.g. difficulty breathing, nausea and skin rashes). Reactions can occur during or several hours  after the infusion. You will be monitored and may be given medicine to help prevent this. Reactions  are more common with the first infusion, so it may be given more slowly than later treatments.

Managing side effects

Your health care team will monitor you while you are taking targeted therapy drugs. Side effects can sometimes begin within days of starting treatment, but more commonly they occur weeks or even months later. Your treatment team can help you manage any side effects.

Side effects may last from a few weeks to a few months. Most are temporary and will improve once you stop taking the drug; however some may be permanent. In some cases, your treatment team will reduce the dose of the targeted therapy drug to see if that helps ease the side effects.

Many side effects of targeted therapy drugs may need to be managed differently. For example, skin reactions may be more severe or last longer than with other types of treatment, and you may be prescribed an antihistamine or steroid cream to help with the itching and dryness.

Targeted therapy drugs can interact with many common medicines and cause harmful side effects. It is important to let your doctor know about any other medicines or supplements you are taking so they can check for any known interactions. It is also a good idea to talk with your cancer specialist before having any vaccinations.

  — Jennifer

Let your treatment team know about side effects

As targeted therapy drugs have the potential to cause serious life-threatening side effects, such as heart and lung complications, it’s important for your treatment team to monitor your response. Ask the doctor or nurse which side effects to watch out for or report, and who to contact after hours.

Side effects can be better managed when they are reported early. Your doctor may be able to prescribe medicine to prevent or reduce them. If they are not treated, side effects may become serious, and treatment may need to be stopped for a period of time. Once the side effects have gone away, you may be able to restart the targeted therapy on an adjusted dose, or try a different drug.

This information was last reviewed in June 2018
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