How to Manage Side Effects of Targeted Therapy

Unlike traditional cancer treatments like chemotherapy, targeted therapy targets cancer cells without harming normal cells. The drugs used in this treatment often work by detecting and blocking genes or proteins that signal the cancer cells to grow and divide.

Due to its precision in targeting cancer cells, targeted therapy poses fewer side effects than chemotherapy. Some of its common side effects include fatigue, skin irritation, diarrhea, high blood pressure, and difficulty in healing wounds. Liver problems and holes in the digestive tract may develop in a few cases.

Its side effects and severity may vary depending on the specific drug used, dosage, and how the patient’s body reacts to the treatment. Some side effects can last for a short time, while some are long-lasting. Being aware of these can help patients, as well as their cancer care team, devise strategies for managing the side effects.

Generally, patients are encouraged to maintain a healthy diet, get enough rest, exercise regularly, reduce alcohol use, and quit smoking to help them prepare for treatments and manage their side effects.

The information below details ways to manage each side effect brought by targeted therapy.


Fatigue: It is very common in cancer patients, especially during and after treatment. The type of fatigue they feel is different from that of a normal routine. They often describe it as having heavy arms and legs, difficulty concentrating, being unable to sleep, and having a little drive to do anything.

How to manage:

  • Find the balance between relaxation and being active. Studies have shown that engaging in physical activities like walking around the neighborhood, working in the garden, exercising, and doing yoga can decrease the patient’s level of fatigue.
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet and keep hydrated. These are equally as important as getting extra rest in fighting cancer treatment-related fatigue. Inadequate intake of calories and micronutrients can induce fatigue. Eating many small meals and snacks throughout the day can also help.
  • Seek a mental health expert. Since fatigue may sometimes be related to chronic stress or anxiety, seeking a psychologist’s help to cope with difficult thoughts and emotions experienced during treatment is important.


Diarrhea is one of the common side effects of cancer treatments, including targeted therapy, especially if the part of the body affected is the abdomen area.

How to manage:

  • Focus on hydration. This is crucial when one is experiencing diarrhea, regardless of the cause. Some helpful solution to keep the body dehydrated is by drinking plenty of water and electrolytes.
  • Eat foods that are low in fat and fiber as they trigger diarrhea even more. Examples of these are raw fruits and vegetables, fried foods, and butter. When eating, take smaller meals than usual, so the body doesn’t work hard to digest.
  • Take anti-diarrheal medications as directed by the cancer care team.


Fever: It usually comes as a sign of infection, which is very common for cancer patients after receiving their treatment. Treatments like targeted therapy may cause a decrease in the body’s white blood cells (also called neutropenia), so the patients do not have the means to fight infection.

How to manage:

  • Cool down by placing a damp cloth on top of the forehead.
  • Prevent excess heat by avoiding the use of blankets when sleeping.
  • Seek an expert if fever and chills persist. Ask the doctor about prescription medications that can help.


Skin irritation: After undergoing targeted therapy, the skin may become dry or itchy. Rashes and nail problems may also appear.

How to manage:

  • Avoid the sun as this may worsen the irritation. Covering skin with appropriate clothes and using sunscreen with at least SPF 30 can help.
  • Cleanse skin using warm water and unscented or mild soap. Don’t rub the skin with a towel, but pat it dry when cleaning.
  • Moisturize skin, especially irritated areas using cream or lotion within five minutes after showering or taking a bath.
  • Use dermatologist-recommended ointments or creams that can help soothe skin dryness or swelling. In more severe cases, the doctor may prescribe steroids or antihistamines.


Hairloss or alopecia: The hair may thin or fall out after treatment. This may occur not only on the head but also on the eyebrows, arms, legs, and other areas of the body.

How to manage:

  • Wear cooling caps before, during, and after treatments to reduce the risk of hair loss, even if they can be uncomfortable and may cause headaches. Wearing the cap induces scalp hypothermia, where the blood vessels are constricted so that the drug will not reach the hair follicles and affect hair growth.
  • Cover the head with wigs or scarves to hide areas of the head that have lost hair.
  • Cut hair short or shave head before fallout begins.
  • Don’t brush your hair too often, and don’t pull too hard during brushing. Avoid using blow dryers, curling irons, perms, and hair dyes also.


High blood pressure: Targeted therapy cancer medications such as angiogenesis inhibitors may prevent the production of new blood vessels, resulting in elevated blood pressure.

How to manage:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Reduce sodium intake.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine.
  • Use a blood pressure monitor to track levels regularly.
  • Seek a physician’s advice to determine appropriate management strategies, including medications.


Slow wound healing: Drugs used in targeted therapy may interfere with the body’s wound-healing mechanism. This condition does affect not only small wounds or cuts but also holes in the linings of the stomach and intestine.

How to manage:

  • Seek a doctor right away in cases of intense vomiting, abdominal pain, or blood in the stool.


Swelling: Some targeted therapy drugs may cause swelling in areas like feet, hands, legs, and around the eyes.

How to manage:

  • Put an ice pack on the swollen area.
  • Elevate the inflamed area.
  • Ask the doctor about diuretics or ibuprofen as medications.


Overall, no matter what side effects the patient is experiencing, it is important to keep a consistent and open dialogue with the cancer care team to receive the appropriate advice and medications that can effectively help manage the side effects.


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