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Targeted Therapy for Cancer

Targeted therapy is a way to treat cancer. It is different from traditional chemotherapy. Traditional chemotherapy works by killing cells that grow quickly, such as cancer cells. Targeted therapy only affects parts (targets) of cells that grow quickly. Because of this, targeted therapy can cause fewer side effects. There are many kinds of targeted therapy medicines. They work differently on different types of cancers.

How does targeted therapy work?

The type of medicine used and its effects depend on the type of cancer being treated. Targeted therapy medicines work in various ways. Some help your body attack cancer cells. Others cause cancer cells to die. Still others change or slow the growth of cancer cells. Targeted therapy may be used in addition to surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. Or it may be used alone.

How is targeted therapy given?

Targeted therapy medicine can be given as a pill you take by mouth. It may be given as an injection. Or it can be given through an IV infusion. It may be done at home, or in a doctor’s office, clinic, or hospital. The length of time depends on the type of medicine and how it is given. You may need to have treatments every day, once a week, or every few weeks.

Common side effects of targeted therapy

The medicines used to treat cancer also often cause side effects. The side effects vary depending on which drug is used. Most of the side effects are temporary. They often go away a month or so after treatment ends. The most common side effects are:

  • Skin issues. A rash can occur on the head, face, and upper body. The skin may be warm and red. Bumps that look like acne may form on the skin. Your skin may become very dry and crack. It may itch, burn, or hurt to touch. It may have a yellow tint to it. Sores may develop on the scalp. The palms of the hands and soles of the feet may become swollen, red, and sore. These can include pain or numbness, redness, swelling, and blisters. Eyelids can become painful and swollen, or itchy. They may flip inward or outward. Cuticles may be red and painful.

  • Hair and nail issues. The hair may become thin and very dry. It may break off more easily. Hair loss may occur on the scalp and lead to bald spots. Or, the hair can become curly. Hair may grow in darker during treatment. Hair on the face may grow faster or become thin. Fingernails and toenails may become weak and break easily, or pull away from the skin.

  • Blood vessel issues. These can include high blood pressure and blood clots. You may also have bleeding and bruising, and poor wound healing. In some people, these issues can cause serious problems that need treatment.

  • Digestive issues. These can include nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea or constipation. Digestive issues may also cause dehydration.

Managing side effects

With targeted therapy, most of the side effects go away after the therapy ends. During treatment, you can help manage side effects. This can help you be more comfortable. Tell your healthcare team as soon as you have side effect symptoms. Talk with them about how to manage your side effects. In some cases, your dose may need to be stopped for a time until your symptoms get better.

Risks and complications

Risks and complications of targeted cancer therapy include:

  • Infection

  • Failure to slow the growth of or kill cancer cells

  • Damage to scalp that causes permanent hair loss

Your doctor will tell you about other risks that may apply to you.


© 2000-2018 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.