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Common questions about targeted therapy

Answers to some common questions about targeted therapy are below.

The cancer must contain the particular target or the drug won’t work. The response to targeted therapy varies widely. In some cancers, four out of five people assessed as suitable for a particular targeted therapy drug will respond, while for other cancers, the rate of success is much lower. This is due to a range of factors, including how many of the cancer cells carry the target.

Cancer cells can eventually stop responding to a targeted therapy drug even if it works at first. If this happens, another targeted therapy drug or  another treatment may be offered. Less commonly, a targeted therapy drug may cause serious side effects and the treatment plan will need to be adjusted.

Ask your cancer specialist if there is a suitable targeted therapy for you. This will depend on the type and stage of the cancer. Your specialist will also need to test the cancer to see if one of the currently available drugs is an option.

Many more targeted therapy drugs are being studied in clinical trials. Talk with your specialist about the latest developments and whether there are any trials that might be right for you.

Download our booklet ‘Understanding Clinical Trials and Research’

The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) covers most of the cost of many prescription medicines, including some targeted therapy drugs. Medicines not on the PBS are usually expensive, but you may be able to have them as part of a clinical trial or at a reduced cost through a compassionate access program.

Targeted therapy is usually prescribed by a medical oncologist or haematologist. It may be given on its own or combined with chemotherapy.

Some targeted therapy drugs are given in repeating cycles, with rest periods. Others are taken every day without any breaks. Most cancers have treatment protocols that set out which drugs to have, how much and how often. You can find information about protocols for targeted therapy and other cancer drugs at eviq.org.au. Your specialist may need to adjust the protocols to your individual situation.

Targeted therapy may be given in different ways:

  • as tablets or capsules that you can swallow
  • as an intravenous (IV) infusion into a vein, either through a drip in your arm or into a port (a small device inserted under the skin of the chest or arm)
  • as an injection under the skin.

When targeted therapy is given as an infusion, some people react to the infusion process (e.g. skin rashes, nausea, difficulty breathing). 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.

How long you have targeted therapy depends on the aim of the treatment, how the cancer responds and any side effects you have. In many cases, targeted therapy tablets or capsules need to be taken daily for many months or even years. Your treatment team can give you more details.

You will usually not need to take any special precautions to protect other people in your household while you are having targeted therapy.

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 vitamin or herbal supplements you are taking so they can check for any known problems. It is also a good idea to talk with your cancer specialist before having any vaccinations.

You will have regular check-ups with your doctor, blood tests and different types of scans to see whether the cancer has responded to treatment.

A good response from targeted therapy will make a cancer that can be seen on a scan shrink or even disappear completely.

In some cases, the cancer remains stable, which means it doesn’t grow in size on scans, but also does not shrink or disappear. People with stable disease can live for many years and have a good quality of life.

Featured resource

Understanding Targeted Therapy

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed June 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Brett Hughes, Senior Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital and The Prince Charles Hospital, and The University of Queensland, QLD; Natalie Dubs, Consumer; Hazel Everett, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Cancer Services, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, WA; Karen Hall, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Dr Hilda High, Genetic Oncologist, Sydney Cancer Genetics, NSW; Ingrid Kivikoski, Consumer; Anne McGregor, Consumer; Donna Milne, Nurse Consultant, Melanoma and Skin Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Prof Nick Pavlakis, Board Chair, Thoracic Oncology Group of Australasia (TOGA), and Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Medical Oncology, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Gay Refeld, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Breast Care, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, WA.