Is Immunotherapy Right for You?

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on January 11, 2021

Cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation use medications or high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Immunotherapy is different because it uses your own immune system to fight off the cancer.

Some immunotherapy treatments help your immune system find the cancer or work harder to attack it. Others give you man-made versions of proteins or other substances to help your body fight the disease. Immunotherapy is a type of biologic therapy.

Immunotherapy is approved to treat certain kinds of cancer, including melanoma, lymphoma, and lung cancer. Immune-based treatments for many other types are being tested in clinical trials.

How Do Doctors Use Immunotherapy?

Cancers Immunotherapy Can TreatA blood specialist covers which cancers respond to immune therapies, from lymphoma to lung cancer.84


JEAN KOFF: There are so many

different immune therapies

available right now.

Some are drugs.

Some are cells.

And the most successful arena,

at least

for the cell-directed therapy,

tends to be the blood cancers,

such as lymphoma, leukemia,

to some extent multiple myeloma.

But immunotherapy as a whole

has actually been very

successful in targeting

solid tumors as well.

So cancers that are especially

easily targeted

include lung cancers, skin

cancers, and some types of colon


We've been successful in finding

targets on the cancers

that right now have approved

therapies of immunotherapies

that work very well.

And so sometimes that means

finding a protein that's

specific to the cancer that's

on the cell surface,

and so the immunotherapy

is able to target

that specific protein.

Other times it's figuring out

how the immune system is being

evaded by the cancer.

And once we figure that out

for a certain cancer type,

then we can engineer

our approaches.

The hope is that all cancers

might be targetable by some sort

of immunotherapy,

but we need to do more studies

to find out how best we can get

those cancers to respond.

Jean Koff, MD.<br>Hematologist, Winship Cancer Institute./delivery/aws/06/34/0634cab0-5bca-3522-8142-00e6ac814ac4/091e9c5e81e7b3b3_funded-expert-feature-cancers-immunotherapy-can-treat_,4500k,2500k,1000k,750k,400k,.mp403/13/2020 16:25:00650350photo of immunotherapy/webmd/consumer_assets/site_images/article_thumbnails/video/cancers_immunotherapy_can_treat_video/650x350_cancers_immunotherapy_can_treat_video.jpg091e9c5e81e7b3b3

It’s a relatively new treatment compared with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, but it’s commonly used to treat some cancers. It works better on certain forms of the disease than others.

Depending on the type of cancer you have, you might get immunotherapy:

  • With or after another treatment, like surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy
  • By itself as a first treatment
  • As part of a clinical trial if other treatments haven't worked and your cancer has spread


Should I Try Immunotherapy?

This type of treatment isn't right for everyone. It doesn't work on all types of cancer. And if surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy has stopped your cancer from growing, you might not need it.

Immunotherapy might be for you if it's approved for your cancer. Even if it isn't, you still might be able to get it in a clinical trial if your first treatments didn't work. Ask your doctor if any trials are testing out new immunotherapy treatments for your cancer type.

Pros and Cons of ImmunotherapyAny therapy has a list of possible downsides, but sometimes the benefits far outweigh them. Here's what to consider during your cancer treatment.107


JEAN KOFF: Immunotherapy refers

to any therapeutic approach

or th-- it can be a drug or even

cells that are used to either

boost the immune system--

make it look smarter,

look harder to attack

and kill cancer cells--

or to simulate those type

of immune cells

or immune properties

to do the same thing.

While the potential benefits

could be cure of your cancer

or long-term control

of your cancer, it really

depends on what type of cancer

you have, what therapies we have

available, um, and kind of how

those therapies are used

in the treatment

of your cancers.

The other possible benefit

is that if that immune therapy

is able to take the place

of older, more

conventional therapies that may

have increased side effects,

then you may have an easier time

receiving therapy

for your cancer.

Any therapy has a list of risks

associated with it.

With the immune therapies,

one of the common themes

is that sometimes, the therapy

doesn't work.

So some patients will not

respond to a given immunotherapy

even if that immunotherapy works

well in the majority of patients

with that cancer type.

The other risk, of course,

is of side effects.

And a common threat

with immunotherapies

is that sometimes,

the immune system can get ramped

up a little too much.

And instead of just targeting

the cancer, like we would hope

for, the immune therapy

can actually activate

the immune system to attack

normal cells

and cause

autoimmune-like effects, um,

or other disruptive symptoms

for the patient.

Jean Koff, MD.<br>Hematologist, Winship Cancer Institute./delivery/aws/49/25/49257fab-657d-330d-9837-cea3f0afb6f0/091e9c5e81e7b4de_funded-expert-feature-pros-cons-immunotherapy_,4500k,2500k,1000k,750k,400k,.mp403/13/2020 16:49:00650350photo of doctor patient consultation/webmd/consumer_assets/site_images/article_thumbnails/video/pros_cons_immunotherapy_video/650x350_pros_cons_immunotherapy_community.jpg091e9c5e81e7b4de

Here are questions to ask your doctor to decide if it’s right for you:

  • Are any immunotherapy treatments approved for my cancer?
  • If not, are any clinical trials testing these treatments for my cancer?How might it help my cancer?
  • Will I get it alone or with other treatments?
  • How will I get it (by shot, pill, etc.)?
  • How often will I need it?
  • What kinds of side effects can it cause?
  • For how long will I need to take it?
  • What happens if it doesn't work?

Make sure you understand how it might help you and what side effects it can cause before you start treatment.

WebMD Medical Reference



American Cancer Society: "Cancer Vaccines," "Immune checkpoint inhibitors to treat cancer," "Monoclonal antibodies to treat cancer," "Non-specific cancer immunotherapies and adjuvants," "What is cancer immunotherapy?"

Cancer Research Institute: “The Answer to Cancer: Benefits of Cancer Immunotherapy,” “What Is Cancer Immunotherapy?: Lung Cancer,” “What Is Cancer Immunotherapy?: Lymphoma,” “What Is Cancer Immunotherapy?: Melanoma."

National Cancer Institute: "Atezolizumab," "Bevacizumab," "Immunotherapy," "Ipilimumab," "Nivolumab," "Pembrolizumab."

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: "Immunotherapy."

Cleveland Clinic: "Immunotherapy."

Cancer Immunity: “Monoclonal antibodies in cancer therapy.”

Cancer Care: "What is Immunotherapy?"

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