Cetuximab (Erbitux®)

OncoLink
Last Modified: August 21, 2011

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Pronounced: se-TUX-i-mab
Classification: Monoclonal Antibody

About Cetuximab

Cetuximab is a man-made version of a naturally occurring human/mouse antibody that inhibits the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). The EGFR is a protein that is abnormally over expressed in many cancers, and the inhibition of EGFR results in a decrease in tumor cell growth and decreased production of other factors responsible for metastasis (spreading of cancer).

How to Take Cetuximab

Cetuximab is given through intravenous (into a vein) infusion. The first dose will be given over a period of about two hours. Subsequent doses will be given once a week, over about an hour. Medications are given prior to the administration of cetuximab to prevent a reaction to the infusion.

Possible Side Effects of Cetuximab

There are a number of things you can do to manage the side effects of Cetuximab. Talk to your doctor or nurse about these recommendations. They can help you decide what will work best for you. These are some of the most common side effects:

Infusion Reaction

Some patients develop a reaction to the infusion. This most commonly occurs with the first dose they receive. Reactions can cause chills, fever, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, itching, or low blood pressure. Tell your nurse right away if you experience any of these. You will be given a medication prior to the infusion to help prevent this reaction.

Nail and Skin Changes

Cetuximab has some unique nail and skin side effects that you may develop. Patients may develop a rash. While this rash may look like acne, it is not, and should not be treated with acne medications. The rash may appear red, swollen, crusty and dry and feel sore. You may also develop very dry skin, which may crack, be itchy or become flaky or scaly. The rash my be the worst during the first few weeks of treatment, but may continue until treatment is stopped. Tips for managing your skin include:

  • Use a thick, alcohol-free emollient lotion or cream on your skin at least twice a day, including right after bathing.
  • Sun exposure can worsen the rash. Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and wear a hat and sunglasses to protect your head and face from the sun.
  • Bathe in cool or lukewarm water and pat your skin dry.
  • Use soaps, lotions and laundry detergents without alcohol, perfumes or dyes.
  • Wear gloves to wash dishes or do housework or gardening.
  • Drink plenty of water and try not to scratch or rub your skin.
  • Notify your healthcare team if you develop a rash as they may have management suggestions and/or prescribe a topical medication to apply to the rash or an oral medication.

While receiving cetuximab, you may develop an inflammation of the skin around the nail bed/cuticle areas of toes or fingers, which is called paronychia. It can appear red, swollen or pus filled. Nails may develop "ridges" in them or fall off. You may also develop cuts or cracks that look like small paper cuts in the skin on your toes, fingers or knuckles. These side effects may appear several months after starting treatment, but can last for many months after treatment stops.

  • Follow the same recommendations for your skin (above).
  • Don't bite your nails or cuticles or cut the cuticles.
  • Keep your fingernails and toenails clean and dry.
  • You may use nail polish, but do not wear fake nails.
  • Notify your doctor or nurse if any nails fall off or you develop any of these side effects or other skin abnormalities.

For more suggestions, read the Nail and Skin Care Tip Sheet.

Hair Changes

While receiving cetuximab, your eyelashes may grow very fast, become very long and bother your eyes. The hair on your head may become curly, fine or brittle. These tend to resolve once treatment is stopped.

Nausea and/or Vomiting

Take anti-nausea medications as prescribed. If you continue to have nausea or vomiting, notify your doctor or nurse so they can help you manage this side effect. In addition, dietary changes may help. Avoid things that may worsen the symptoms, such as heavy or greasy/fatty, spicy or acidic foods (lemons, tomatoes, oranges). Try antacids, (e.g. milk of magnesia, calcium tablets such as Tums), saltines, or ginger ale to lessen symptoms. Read the Nausea & Vomiting Tip Sheet for more suggestions.

Call your doctor or nurse if you are unable to keep fluids down for more than 12 hours or if you feel lightheaded or dizzy at any time.

Reproductive Concerns

Exposure of an unborn child to this medication could cause birth defects, so you should not become pregnant or father a child while on this medication or for 6 months following therapy. Effective birth control is necessary during treatment, even if your menstrual cycle stops or you believe your sperm is affected. Cetuximab can also be passed through breast milk, therefore women should not breast feed while using this medication. See OncoLink's section on sexuality for helpful tips for dealing with these side effects.

Fatigue

While on cancer treatment you may need to adjust your schedule to manage fatigue. Plan times to rest during the day and conserve energy for more important activities. Exercise can help combat fatigue; a simple daily walk with a friend can help. Talk to your healthcare team and see OncoLink's section on fatigue for helpful tips on dealing with this side effect.

Diarrhea

Your oncology team can recommend medications to relieve diarrhea. Also, try eating low-fiber, bland foods, such as white rice and boiled or baked chicken. Avoid raw fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads, cereals and seeds. Soluble fiber is found in some foods that absorbs fluid and can help relieve diarrhea. Foods high in soluble fiber include: applesauce, bananas (ripe), canned fruit, orange and grapefruit sections, boiled potatoes, white rice and products made with white flour, oatmeal, cream of rice, cream of wheat, and farina. Drink 8-10 glasses on non-alcoholic, un-caffeinated fluid a day to prevent dehydration. Read Low Fiber Diet for Diarrhea for more tips.

Lung Problems

In a few cases, patients developed lung problems while receiving cetuximab. Notify your healthcare team right away if you develop shortness of breath or any difficulty breathing.


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