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Targeted cancer drugs

You might have a targeted cancer drug for primary liver cancer (hepatocellular cancer) that can’t be removed with surgery, or has spread to other parts of the body (advanced liver cancer).

What are targeted cancer drugs?

Cancer cells have changes in their genes (DNA) that make them different from normal cells. These changes mean that they behave differently. Cancer cells can grow faster than normal cells and can spread to other areas of the body. Targeted cancer drugs work by ‘targeting’ the differences that a cancer cell has.

Targeted drugs work in different ways. For example, they can:

  • stop cancer cells from dividing and growing
  • encourage the immune system to attack cancer cells
  • stop cancers from growing blood vessels

You might hear some targeted drugs being called biological therapies.

Sorafenib (Nexavar)

Doctors might use sorafenib as a first treatment for people with advanced hepatocellular cancer (HCC). To have this treatment your liver must be working well.

Sorafenib is a type of cancer growth blocker called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI). Tyrosine kinases are proteins that cells use to signal to each other to grow and divide. Sorafenib works in 2 ways. It stops:

  • signals that tell cancer cells to grow
  • cancer cells forming new blood vessels, which they need to keep growing.

Lenvatinib (Lenvima)

Lenvatinib is a newer cancer growth blocker for primary liver cancer. It works in a similar way to sorafenib but has some different side effects.

You might have it as a first treatment for advanced liver cancer (hepatocellular cancer) instead of sorafenib. Your liver must be working well to have this treatment.

Regorafenib (Stivarga)

You might have regorafenib for advanced liver cancer after treatment with sorafenib (second line treatment).

How you have targeted cancer drugs

You have your treatment as tablets or capsules. You take them for as long as they are controlling the cancer and the side effects aren’t too severe.

You must take tablets and capsules according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you. You should take the right dose, not more or less.

Never stop taking a cancer drug without talking to your specialist first.

Side effects

Side effects depend on the type of drug you are having. Some of the common side effects include:

  • diarrhoea – tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you have diarrhoea 4 or more times a day or any at night
  • hand-foot syndrome – soreness and redness of the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
  • a rash, or red, dry itchy skin
  • tiredness (fatigue)
  • feeling or being sick
  • raised blood pressure (hypertension)
  • an increased risk of bleeding such as nosebleeds or bleeding gums – if you notice blood in your poo (stools) or sick, contact your doctor or nurse straight away
  • an increased risk of infection – tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you have a change in temperature or feel unwell
Contact your doctor or nurse as soon as possible if the side effects are severe, aren't getting any better, or are getting worse. Early treatment can help manage side effects better.

When you go home

Treatment with targeted drugs can be difficult to cope with for some people. Your nurse will give you a number to call (advice line) if you have any problems at home.

Contact your advice line if you have side effects or any concerns.