When Immunotherapy Doesn’t Show Results

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on February 23, 2024
4 min read

Immunotherapy is a treatment that helps your body's immune system fight cancer. It's approved to treat certain kinds, including some types of lymphoma, leukemia, breast cancer, and lung cancer. It can be an option if chemotherapy or other cancer treatments haven't worked for you, or if you couldn't handle the effects of other treatments. Immunotherapy could help you live longer.

Your doctor will recommend immunotherapy if it has a good chance of working and it isn't likely to cause a lot of side effects. But it doesn’t work for everyone, and it may cause side effects you can't handle. Even if you've tried many other treatments, you're not out of options. 

Here's a guide to your next steps when immunotherapy stops working.

To start, ask your doctor which other options are available for your cancer. You might try a different type of immunotherapy drug. Or you could start a therapy you haven't tried.

If it turns out that immunotherapy isn’t right for you, the treatment you try next will depend on a few things, including:

  • Your health
  • Your age
  • The type of cancer you have
  • Other treatments you've tried
  • Side effects the other treatments caused


More standard treatments you might try -- if you haven’t already -- include:

  • Radiation. Radiation. This uses high-energy X-rays or another kind of radiation to kill cancer cells or stop their growth. You can get it from a machine that’s outside your body, or a doctor can put it inside your body near the cancer. A treatment called hyperfractionated radiation therapy gives you two smaller doses of radiation each day instead of one big dose.
  • Chemotherapy. This uses a powerful combination of drugs to kill or stop the growth of cancer cells. You get the medicine by mouth or through a vein.
  • Targeted therapy. This zeroes in on things that help cancer cells multiply and survive. Some treatments interrupt the signals that tell cancer cells to divide. Others block blood vessels that feed tumors.
  • Hormone therapy. This works on types of cancer that need hormones to grow, like breast and prostate cancers.
  • Stem cell transplant. This replaces damaged cells in your bone marrow with healthy ones from a donor. It's used to treat cancers like leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

Before you start any new treatment, ask your doctor how the therapy might affect your cancer and how likely it will be to help. Find out what side effects it can cause. That will help you know if you want to try it.

If you've tried every treatment for your cancer and nothing has worked, you might want to take part in a clinical trial. Scientists use them to test new ways to treat cancer to see if they’re safe and if they work.

A clinical trial gives you a chance to try a new cancer treatment that isn't available to everyone. Many new types of immunotherapy are in clinical trials.

Your doctor can let you know if one of these trials might be a good fit. You can also look on the website clinicaltrials.gov. Ask about the benefits and risks of the treatment before you enroll.

This option is available at any time after your diagnosis and can help manage all of the physical and mental health effects from your diagnosis to the logistical effects like transportation and health insurance concerns. You get this care at a cancer center or at home.

Palliative care can include:

  • Diet, physical therapy, relaxation techniques, and medicine to ease side effects of treatment
  • Counseling and other resources to help with the fear, anxiety, and depression your cancer might cause
  • Help with health insurance, employment, and legal issues that arise from your cancer and its treatment
  • Spiritual guidance to help you get through your illness

 If your doctor recommends palliative care, it doesn’t mean they're giving up on your care. It’s another way to ease your symptoms. If they don’t bring it up on their own, ask them if it might help you feel more comfortable.

Your doctor might recommend this if your treatments have stopped working and your cancer has spread.

You can get it at a hospice center, nursing home, or in your own home. Hospice isn't a treatment or cure for your cancer. It's meant to keep you comfortable and help you and your family deal with your disease.

Hospice care might include:

  • Medicine to ease your pain
  • Counseling
  • Physical therapy
  • Nutrition
  • Massage
  • Art or music therapy
  • Support for your family members
  • Spiritual guidance


Even if immunotherapy no longer works, you have options. You might be able to try other cancer treatments. Or your doctors can give you medicines and other therapies to ease your symptoms so you feel better.

Take this time to spend with family and friends, and do the things you love. Get counseling to relieve any worry you feel. Stay positive. And try not to lose hope.