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Imatinib, which is also known as Glivec®, is a targeted therapy used to treat certain types of leukaemia| and soft tissue sarcoma|. It may also be used to treat other types of cancer as part of a research trial|.
Imatinib may be used to treat:
This page describes imatinib, how it's given and some of its possible side effects. It should ideally be read with our general information about CML, ALL or GISTs.
You'll see your doctor regularly while you have this treatment so they can monitor its effects. This information should help you discuss any queries about your treatment and its side effects with your doctor or specialist nurse.
Imatinib is a type of treatment called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor. Kinases are important proteins in the body that regulate how the cells grow and divide.
Imatinib works by blocking (inhibiting) signals within the cancer cells that make them grow and divide. Blocking the signals causes the cells to die.
Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)
Imatinib is licensed to treat people with:
Imatinib is licensed to treat people with a:
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence| (NICE) gives advice on which new drugs or treatments should be available on the NHS in England and Wales. Recommendations on the use of new drugs within the NHS in Scotland are made by the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC). NICE and the SMC both recommend the use of imatinib in certain situations, however they have also not approved its use in others. Your doctor can give you more information about this.
If you live in Northern Ireland, speak to your cancer specialist about whether imatinib is recommended to treat your type of cancer.
If imatinib isn’t recommended for you, it may not be available on the NHS, although you may be given it as part of a clinical trial. We have more information on what you can do if a treatment isn’t available|.
Imatinib is a dark yellow to brownish-orange tablet. It comes in two strengths: 100mg and 400mg.
Imatinib is normally taken once a day. You should take the tablets with a meal and a large glass of water. Imatinib is usually taken for as long as a person benefits from it.
Each person’s reaction to treatment is different. Some people have very few side effects while others may experience more. The side effects described here won't affect everyone having this treatment.
We have outlined the most common side effects but haven't included those that are rare and therefore unlikely to affect you. If you notice any effects that aren't listed here, discuss them with your doctor or specialist nurse.
The side effects of imatinib are generally mild or moderate. They often occur during the first month of treatment and may get better after this initial period.
This is usually mild. Your doctor can prescribe anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs to prevent or greatly reduce nausea and vomiting|. It can also be reduced by taking the imatinib after food.
If the sickness isn't controlled, or if it continues, tell your doctor as they can prescribe other anti-sickness drugs that may work better for you. Some anti-sickness drugs can cause constipation. Let your doctor or nurse know if this is a problem.
Imatinib can cause diarrhoea|. This can usually be easily controlled with medicine but tell your doctor if it's severe or continues. It's important to drink plenty of fluids if you have diarrhoea.
Some people find that imatinib causes headaches. Let your doctor or nurse know. They can give you painkillers to relieve this.
These can often be eased by taking mild painkillers, which your doctor can prescribe.
This is fairly common and is not harmful, although it can be upsetting. Many people gain weight or notice swelling around the eyes and ankles because of the retention of fluid|. Diuretics (drugs that make you pass more urine) can help get rid of some of the fluid, but it often settles down by itself. Let your doctor know if you put on a lot of weight very quickly.
Imatinib can cause pain in the eyes and deterioration of vision. It may also cause more tears to be produced, which can lead to watery eyes. If your sight has deteriorated, you should be careful when driving or operating machinery.
An itchy| rash can sometimes occur while you are having treatment with imatinib. It’s important to let your doctor know if this happens. Your doctor can prescribe medicine to help with this.
Imatinib can reduce the number of white blood cells in your blood, which help to fight infection. White blood cells are produced by the bone marrow. If your number of white blood cells is low, you will be more prone to infections.| A low white blood cell count is called neutropenia.
Contact your doctor or the hospital straight away if:
Occasionally it may be necessary to delay your treatment if the number of blood cells (blood count) is still low.
Imatinib can reduce the production of platelets, which help the blood to clot. Tell your doctor if you have any unexplained bruising or bleeding, such as nosebleeds, bleeding gums, blood spots or rashes on the skin. You can have a platelet transfusion| if your platelet count is low.
Imatinib can reduce the number of red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. A low red blood cell count is called anaemia. This may make you feel tired| and breathless|. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have these symptoms. You may need to have a blood transfusion| if the number of red blood cells becomes too low.
Some people lose their appetite| while they’re having imatinib. This can be mild and may only last a few days. If it doesn’t improve you can ask to see a dietitian or specialist nurse at your hospital. They can give you advice on improving your appetite and keeping to a healthy weight|.
It’s important to let your doctor know straight away if you feel unwell or have any severe side effects, even if they’re not mentioned above.
Some medicines, including those that you can buy in a shop or chemist, can be harmful to take when you are having imatinib. Tell your doctor about any medicines you’re taking, including over-the-counter drugs, complementary therapies| and herbal drugs|.
Your ability to become pregnant or father a child may be affected by having this treatment. It's important to discuss fertility| with your doctor before starting treatment.
Little is known about the effects of imatinib on a developing baby. Therefore, it is not advisable to become pregnant or father a child while taking this drug.
It’s not known whether imatinib is present in semen or vaginal fluids. To protect your partner, it’s safest to either avoid sex or use a barrier form of contraception for about 48 hours after treatment.
There is a potential risk that imatinib may be present in breast milk so women are advised not to breastfeed during treatment with imatinib and for a few months afterwards.
If you’re admitted to hospital for a reason not related to the cancer, it’s important to tell the doctors and nurses looking after you that you are having imatinib treatment. You should tell them the name of your cancer specialist so that they can ask them for advice.
It’s a good idea to know who you should contact if you have any problems or troublesome side effects when you’re at home. During office hours you can contact the clinic or ward where you had your treatment. Your specialist nurse or doctor will tell you who to contact during the evening or at weekends.
This information has been compiled using a number of reliable sources, including:
With thanks to Helen Flint, Clinical Lead Pharmacist, and the people affected by cancer who reviewed this edition. Reviewing information is just one of the ways you could help when you join our Cancer Voices network|.
Content last reviewed: 1 January 2013
Next planned review: 2015
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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