When Immunotherapy Doesn’t Show Results

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.

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.

Choosing Another Treatment

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. 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.
  • 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.

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Join a Clinical Trial

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 find clinical trials for your cancer on clinicaltrials.gov.

Palliative Care

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.

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

Hospice Care

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
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on January 23, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: "What is cancer immunotherapy?"

Cancer Research Institute: “About Clinical Trials,” “I’m the Answer to Cancer: Cancer immunotherapy treatments.”

American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO): "Hospice Care," "When the First Treatment Doesn't Work."

National Cancer Institute: "Chemotherapy," "Hormone Therapy," "Palliative Care in Cancer," "Radiation Therapy," "Stem Cell Transplant," "Targeted Therapy."

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