Researchers continue to make breakthroughs and discoveries on the causes and treatments for cancer. One of these breakthroughs is based on current knowledge of the DNA changes and proteins that power cancer and the idea that cancer treatment can be designed to target those proteins.
This focused treatment is known as targeted therapy or precision or personalized medicine. That’s because this treatment does precisely what its name suggests: It is a specifically made treatment that targets specific proteins or other substances that control how cancer cells grow, divide, and spread. Targeted therapy is different for each cancer and can even be different for two people battling the same type of cancer because not all cancer cells are the same.
What You Need to Know About Targeted Therapies
There are a few different types of targeted therapy, but the two most common are:
- Small-molecule drugs that are minute enough to enter cancer cells to locate and pursue targets that are within the cells.
- Monoclonal antibodies, also known as therapeutic antibodies, that are designed and produced in a lab to fight cancer cells.
Through research, doctors have learned that the environment that starts, grows, and allows cancer to thrive can be as individualized as the person with cancer. Therefore, if targeted therapy is a potential treatment option, a patient will undergo biomarker testing, which tests cancer for potential targets for treatment. During testing, doctors look for the specific genetic elements that are helping a tumor grow and change, which will be the drug’s target. Ideally, the target is a protein or substance that is in a cancer cell but not in healthy cells.
Targeted therapy differs from chemotherapy because it targets only cancer cells. A few ways targeted therapy helps fight cancer include:
- Stops cancer cells from growing and dividing
- Sends cell-destroying drugs to cancer cells
- Boosts the immune system to kill cancer cells
- Cause death of cancer cells
Side Effects of Targeted Therapies
Potential side effects of targeted therapy can vary due to differences in treatment and a patient’s reaction. A doctor can usually prescribe medicines to help prevent or treat side effects. The most common side effects include:
- Liver Problems
- Issues with blood clotting and wound healing
- High blood pressure
- Mouth sores
- Loss of hair color
- Skin problems, like a rash or dry skin
Most side effects disappear once treatment has been completed.
There are instances where the cancer cells can become resistant to targeted therapy. This is likely due to the make-up of the target changing or cancer finding a new way to grow. This is partially why targeted therapy is combined with other treatments like surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or immunotherapy.
What You Need to Ask Your Doctor About Targeted Therapies
Targeted therapy is not currently available for all types of cancer. However, this is a fast-moving area of research, with many new targeted therapies currently being studied in clinical trials. Some cancers that may have targeted therapy treatment available are:
- Breast cancer
- Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)
- Colorectal cancer
- Lung cancer
In the event you, or a loved one, are diagnosed with cancer and targeted therapy is recommended as part of the treatment plan, below are some questions to ask so that you can feel secure in your medical care:
- What type of targeted therapy is being recommended?
- Why is targeted therapy being recommended?
- What other treatments are included in my cancer treatment plan, and how will they interact with one another?
- How will the targeted therapy be administered?
- What is the frequency of treatment?
- How long will I need to receive treatment?
- How will this treatment affect my daily life?
- What is the goal for this treatment?
- How will we know that the treatment is working?
- Will I need any tests done before, during, or after treatment?
- What are the potential side effects of targeted therapy, and how will they be treated?
- Whom do I contact if I have more questions about my treatment plan?