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Imatinib (Glivec)

Imatinib is a targeted cancer drug (biological therapy) and is also known by its brand name Glivec (pronounced glee-vec).

It is a treatment for many different types of cancer. 

How it works

Imatinib 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. They act as chemical messengers. There are a number of different tyrosine kinases and blocking them stops the cancer cells growing. 

Imatinib targets different tyrosine kinases, depending on the type of cancer.

How you have it

You have imatinib as a tablet that you swallow whole, with a glass of water after food. If you can’t swallow the tablets, you can dissolve them in a glass of mineral water or apple juice. Drop the whole tablets into the fluid, and stir with a spoon until the tablets have broken up completely. Then drink the whole glassful.

Taking your tablets

You must take tablets according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you.

Speak to your pharmacist if you have problems swallowing the tablets.

Whether you have a full or an empty stomach can affect how much of a drug gets into your bloodstream.

You should take the right dose, no more or less.

Talk to your specialist or advice line before you stop taking a cancer drug.

When you have it

You have imatinib either once or twice a day, depending on the condition you have. You usually continue taking imatinib for as long as it works, unless the side effects get too bad.

For acute lymphoblastic leukaemia that is Philadelphia chromosome positive, you may have imatinib on its own, or with chemotherapy.

Tests

You have blood tests before and during your treatment. They check your levels of blood cells and other substances in the blood. They also check how well your liver and kidneys are working.

Side effects

We haven't listed all the side effects. It's very unlikely that you will have all of these side effects, but you might have some of them at the same time.

How often and how severe the side effects are can vary from person to person. They also depend on what other treatments you're having. For example, your side effects could be worse if you're also having other drugs or radiotherapy.

When to contact your team

Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist will go through the possible side effects. They will monitor you closely during treatment and check how you are at your appointments. Contact your advice line as soon as possible if:

  • you have severe side effects 
  • your side effects aren’t getting any better
  • your side effects are getting worse

Early treatment can help manage side effects better. 

Contact your doctor or nurse immediately if you have signs of infection, including a temperature above 37.5C or below 36C.

Common side effects

Each of these effects happens in more than 10 in 100 people (10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

Increased risk of getting an infection 

Increased risk of getting an infection is due to a drop in white blood cells. Symptoms include a change in temperature, aching muscles, headaches, feeling cold and shivery and generally unwell. You might have other symptoms depending on where the infection is.

Infections can sometimes be life threatening. You should contact your advice line urgently if you think you have an infection. 

Breathlessness and looking pale 

You might be breathless and look pale due to a drop in red blood cells. This is called anaemia.

Bruising, bleeding gums or nosebleeds

This is due to a drop in the number of platelets in your blood. These blood cells help the blood to clot when we cut ourselves. You may have nosebleeds or bleeding gums after brushing your teeth. Or you may have lots of tiny red spots or bruises on your arms or legs (known as petechia).

Tiredness and weakness (fatigue) 

Tiredness and weakness (fatigue) can happen during and after treatment - doing gentle exercises each day can keep your energy up. Don't push yourself, rest when you start to feel tired and ask others for help.

Fluid build-up (oedema)

A build up of fluid may cause swelling in your arms, hands, ankles, legs, face and other parts of the body. Contact your doctor if this happens to you.

Feeling or being sick

Feeling or being sick is usually well controlled with anti sickness medicines. Avoiding fatty or fried foods, eating small meals and snacks, drinking plenty of water, and relaxation techniques, can all help.

Diarrhoea

Contact your advice line if you have diarrhoea, such as if you've had 4 or more loose watery poos (stools) in 24 hours. Or if you can't drink to replace the lost fluid. Or if it carries on for more than 3 days. Your doctor may give you anti diarrhoea medicine to take home with you after treatment. Eat less fibre, avoid raw fruits, fruit juice, cereals and vegetables, and drink plenty to replace the fluid lost.

Headaches

Tell your doctor or nurse if you keep getting headaches. They can give you painkillers to help.

Indigestion

Contact your doctor or pharmacist if you have indigestion or heartburn. They can prescribe medicines to help.

Skin rash

Skin problems include a skin rash, dry skin and itching. This usually goes back to normal when your treatment finishes. Your nurse will tell you what products you can use on your skin to help.

Muscle and joint pain

You might feel some pain from your muscles and joints. Speak to your doctor or nurse about what painkillers you can take to help with this.

Weight gain

You may gain weight while having this treatment. You may be able to control it with diet and exercise. Tell your doctor or nurse if you are finding it difficult to control your weight. 

Tummy (abdominal) pain

Tell your treatment team if you have this. They can check the cause and give you medicine to help. 

Occasional side effects

Each of these effects happens in more than 1 in 100 people (1%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

  • constipation
  • sore mouth
  • liver changes
  • taste changes
  • weight loss
  • dizziness
  • difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • sore eyes
  • blurred vision
  • loss of appetite
  • wind (flatulence)
  • numbness in hands or feet
  • high temperature (fever)
  • hair thinning
  • cough

Rare side effects

These side effects happen in fewer than 1 in 100 people (1%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

  • fluid around the heart (pericardial effusion)
  • breast pain
  • high uric acid levels in your body due to the breakdown of tumour cells (tumour lysis syndrome) - you have regular blood tests to check for this and may have a tablet called allopurinol to take

Coping with side effects

We have more information about side effects and tips on how to cope with them.

What else do I need to know?

Other medicines, foods and drink

Cancer drugs can interact with some other medicines and herbal products. Tell your doctor or pharmacist about any medicines you are taking. This includes vitamins, herbal supplements and over the counter remedies.

Pregnancy and contraception

This treatment might harm a baby developing in the womb. It is important not to become pregnant or father a child while you're having treatment and for a few months afterwards. Talk to your doctor or nurse about effective contraception before starting treatment.

Fertility

You may not be able to become pregnant or father a child after treatment with this drug. Talk to your doctor before starting treatment if you think you may want to have a baby in the future. Men may be able to store sperm before starting treatment. Women may be able to store eggs or ovarian tissue but this is rare.

Breastfeeding

Don’t breastfeed during this treatment because the drug may come through into your breast milk.

Treatment for other conditions

Always tell other doctors, nurses, pharmacists or dentists that you’re having this treatment if you need treatment for anything else, including teeth problems.

Immunisations

Don’t have immunisations with live vaccines while you’re having treatment and for up to 12 months afterwards. The length of time depends on the treatment you are having. Ask your doctor or pharmacist how long you should avoid live vaccinations.

In the UK, live vaccines include rubella, mumps, measles, BCG, yellow fever and the shingles vaccine (Zostavax).

You can:

  • have other vaccines, but they might not give you as much protection as usual
  • have the flu vaccine (as an injection)
  • be in contact with other people who have had live vaccines as injections

Avoid close contact with people who have recently had live vaccines taken by mouth (oral vaccines) such as oral polio or the typhoid vaccine.

This also includes the rotavirus vaccine given to babies. The virus is in the baby’s poo for up to 2 weeks and could make you ill. So avoid changing their nappies for 2 weeks after their vaccination if possible. Or wear disposable gloves and wash your hands well afterwards.

You should also avoid close contact with children who have had the flu vaccine nasal spray if your immune system is severely weakened. 

Children and adolescents

Some children and adolescents taking imatinib may have slower than normal growth. The treatment team will monitor this carefully.

More information about this treatment

For further information about this treatment go to the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website.

You can report any side effect you have to the Medicines Health and Regulatory Authority (MHRA) as part of their Yellow Card Scheme.

Information and help

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