Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses the immune system to identify and attack cancer cells. Immunotherapy can be used in concert with other treatments such as radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery.
How Immunotherapy Works
Using substances made by the body or in a laboratory, immunotherapy boosts the body’s natural defenses to combat cancer. Immunotherapy may help slow or stop the growth of cancer cells and prevent cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.
An Overview of Treatment
Immunotherapy may be administered in a few different ways:
- Intravenous: The immunotherapy is put into a vein using an IV.
- Topical: The immunotherapy comes in a cream.
- Oral: The immunotherapy comes in a capsule or pill.
- Intravesical: The immunotherapy is administered into the bladder.
You will undergo regular checkups, blood tests, and scans to see whether the cancer has responded to treatment. Because many people have a delayed response, it may take a while to know whether immunotherapy has worked.
Types of Immunotherapy
- Monoclonal Antibodies: Engineered versions of immune system proteins designed to attack specific parts of cancer cells.
- Checkpoint Inhibitors: Medicines that help the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells.
- Cancer Vaccines: Substances put in the body to activate an immune response against certain types of cancer.
- Nonspecific Immunotherapies: Treatments that boost the immune system in a general way, but in doing so may still help the immune system attack cancer cells.
Benefits of Immunotherapy
- Bolster Other Treatments: Other therapies, such as chemotherapy, may work better if applied in tandem with immunotherapy.
- Effective When Other Treatments Aren’t: Certain cancers, such as skin cancer, don’t respond well to chemotherapy or radiation, but may respond well to immunotherapy.
- Fewer Side Effects: Because it targets only your immune system, you may experience fewer side effects.
- Cancer Less Likely to Return. Your immune system learns to go after cancer cells if they return (immunomemory).
Risks of Immunotherapy
- Side Effects: Certain types of immunotherapy rev up your immune system, which can make you feel flu-like symptoms. You might also experience weight gain, stuffiness, diarrhea, and swelling.
- Bad reaction: You might endure pain, itching, redness, swelling, or soreness in the area the medication is applied.
- Harm to Organs: Some immunotherapies can cause your immune system to attack your intestines, kidneys, heart, and other organs.
- Lengthy Treatment: Immunotherapy can take longer to work than other treatment options.
- It May Not Work: Immunotherapy works for less than half of people who try it.
- It May Stop Working: Immunotherapy can stop having an effect.
As is the case with all cancer treatments, immunotherapy comes with certain risks. It can make your immune system behave differently and lead to autoimmune disorders, fever, and other health concerns.
Immunotherapy is not used as widely as radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. However, immunotherapies have been approved to treat many types of cancer. There are also a number of immunotherapies being studied in clinical trials.
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- Immunotherapy to treat cancer. National Cancer Institute. Updated May 24, 2018. Accessed August 13, 2018.