If your doctor suggests immunotherapy to fight your cancer, you may have lots of questions. This type of treatment is new, but there are questions you can ask to decide if it’s right for you and know what you can expect if you try it.

What Is Immunotherapy?

Your immune system is made up of white blood cells, plus the organs and tissues of your lymph system -- like your bone marrow. Its main job is to help your body fight off disease and stay healthy.

Unlike other cancer treatments, immunotherapy drugs don’t kill cancer cells. Instead, they help your immune system do the job. They might help it work harder or make it easier for it to find and get rid of cancer cells.

You get immunotherapy in different ways. It could come through an IV into your vein, as a pill you swallow, or a cream you rub into your skin. Sometimes the doctor will put it straight into your bladder.

Cancers that can be treated with immunotherapy include:

  • Bladder
  • Brain
  • Breast
  • Cervical
  • Colorectal
  • Gastric
  • Kidney
  • Lymphoma/Leukemia
  • Lung
  • Melanoma
  • Ovarian
  • Prostate


What Are the Benefits?

There are many reasons why your doctor might think immunotherapy’s a good choice for you:

Immunotherapy may work when other treatments don’t. Some cancers (like skin cancer) don’t respond well to radiation or chemotherapy but start to go away after immunotherapy.

It can help other cancer treatments work better. Other therapies you have, like chemotherapy, may work better when you also have immunotherapy.

It causes fewer side effects than other treatments. That’s because it targets just your immune system instead of all the cells in your body. The most common side effects are flu-like symptoms, fever, fatigue, rash, and feeling dizzy. Most of the time, these ease up after your first treatment.

Your cancer may be less likely to return.  When you have immunotherapy, your immune system learns to go after cancer cells if they ever come back. This is called immunomemory, and it could help you stay cancer-free for a longer time.

What Are the Risks?

Immunotherapy holds a lot of promise as a cancer treatment. Still, it isn’t perfect:

You might have a bad reaction: It could hurt, itch swell, turn red, or get sore at the place where the medication goes into your body.

There are side effects, just like any other medication. Some types of immunotherapy amp up your immune system and make you feel like you have the flu, complete with fever, chills, and fatigue. Others could cause problems like swelling, weight gain from extra fluids, heart palpitations, a stuffy head, and diarrhea. They could make you more likely to get an infection. Or they could affect your nerves or raise your chance of having blood clots.

It can harm organs and systems. Some of these drugs can cause your immune system to attack organs like your heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, or intestines.

It isn’t a quick fix. Immunotherapy takes longer to work than other common treatments. Your cancer won’t go away quickly.

Not everyone responds. Right now, immunotherapy works for less than half the people who try it. Many people only have a partial response. This means that your tumor could stop growing or get smaller, but won’t go away. Doctors aren’t sure yet why immunotherapy helps only some people.

Your body could get used to it. Over time, immunotherapy may stop having an effect on your cancer cells. This means that even if you have a good response at first, your tumor could start to grow again.

Ask your doctor if immunotherapy is the best way to treat your cancer. Find out which type of drug she has in mind and what her goal is for your treatment.

So far, only a few immunotherapy drugs are approved to fight cancer. Hundreds more are being tested in clinical trials. These are research studies that use volunteers to test new medicines not yet sold to the public.

If immunotherapy seems like the best way to fight your cancer, your doctor may know of a trial you can join.

WebMD Medical Reference


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