| Last Modified: September 12, 2012
Thalidomide is a type of "immunomodulatory agent", meaning it works by affecting the immune system. The mechanism of action is not clear. It may work in a few ways: by inhibiting blood vessel formation (called anti-angiogenesis), enhancing how the immune system functions against the cancer cells or by decreasing growth factor production (one way tumors are “fed”).
How to Take Thalidomide
Thalidomide is given in a capsule form. Doses range from 50 mg to 800 mg per day (up to 4 times a day). Patients generally start at a low dose and slowly increase. Thalidomide is best taken before bedtime because it can cause sedation or sleepiness.
In order to receive thalidomide, patients will need to participate in a program called STEPS (System for Thalidomide Education and Prescribing Safety). This program educates healthcare professionals and patients about the dangers of thalidomide exposure to a fetus. This exposure can cause serious birth defects, and patients taking the medication will need to use two reliable forms of birth control. This includes male patients taking thalidomide, because it is present in sperm. The STEPS program places restrictions on who can prescribe and dispense the medication. Patients will also need to complete a questionnaire before starting the drug, as well as every month they are taking it.
Possible Side Effects of Thalidomide
There are a number of things you can do to manage the side effects of Thalidomide. 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:
When thalidomide was first introduced in the 1950's, it was used to treat insomnia, because drowsiness is the most common side effect in treating cancer patients. This can include fatigue, weakness, sleepiness, confusion and mood changes. It is best to take the medication at bedtime to reduce the tiredness during the day.
Low White Blood Cell Count (Leukopenia or Neutropenia)
White blood cells (WBC) are important for fighting infection. While receiving treatment, your WBC count can drop, putting you at a higher risk of getting an infection. You should let your doctor or nurse know right away if you have a fever (temperature greater than 100.4°), sore throat or cold, shortness of breath, cough, burning with urination, or a sore that doesn't heal.
Tips to preventing infection:
For more suggestions, read the Neutropenia Tip Sheet.
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.
There are several things you can do to prevent or relieve constipation. Include fiber in your diet (fruits and vegetables), drink 8-10 glasses of non-alcoholic fluids a day and keep active. Your doctor or nurse can also recommend medications to relieve constipation. A stool softener once or twice a day may prevent constipation.
These include dryness, itching, and rash. You should use a moisturizer on your skin and lips, but avoid moisturizers with perfumes or scents. Your doctor or nurse can recommend medication if itching is bothersome. If your skin does crack or bleed, be sure to keep the area clean to avoid infection. For more suggestions, read theNail and Skin Care Tip Sheet.
Peripheral Neuropathy (Numbness or Tingling in the Hands and/or Feet)
Peripheral neuropathy is a toxicity that affects the nerves. It causes a numbness or tingling feeling in the hands and feet, often in the pattern of a stocking or glove. This can get progressively worse with additional doses of the drug. In some people, the symptoms slowly resolve after the drug is stopped, but for some it never goes away completely. You should let your healthcare provider know if you experience numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, as they may need to change the doses of your medication. See OncoLink's section on peripheral neuropathy for tips on dealing with this side effect.
Other reported side effects
Include dizziness when standing up from a sitting position and swelling.