Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses a person’s own immune system to fight diseases such as cancer. The treatment works by stimulating the immune system to work harder to attack cancer cells, to make other treatment you’re getting to work better, and to “train” your body to remember cancer cells so that it is ready to attack them if your cancer returns.
In the last few decades, immunotherapy has become important in treating certain cancers such as metastatic renal cell carcinoma, advanced melanoma, metastatic colon cancer, and certain breast, lung and bladder cancers, and lymphomas.
But it does have risks and it’s not for everyone. Know a few key facts before you decide to start.
Who should have immunotherapy?
You’ll need to be in good health to have this treatment, meaning you don’t have major health problems other than your cancer. Before you start, your doctor will do tests that check to make sure your vital organs, like your heart and lungs, are working like they should. You’ll also have a brain scan. Immunotherapy doesn’t help cancer that has spread to your brain.
What are the risks?
Doctors believe immunotherapy is safe. Still, going through treatment can cause side effects. How you feel will depend on the drug you’re taking, but common symptoms include:
- Skin rashes
- Mouth sores
- Changes in blood pressure
- Fluid buildup
- Flu-like symptoms, such as chills, fever, and headaches
Most of these problems go away after your treatment ends. Until then, your doctor can help you manage them.
Some immunotherapy drugs can also cause more severe problems. For instance, people who take high doses of the immunotherapy drug interleukin-2 (IL-2) have a higher chance for kidney damage, heart attacks, bleeding in the intestines, and neurological disorders. Because of this, it will be crucial for you to give your doctor updates on how immunotherapy makes you feel.
Talk to your doctor about any risks of this treatment, how they compare to the benefits you’d get from the medicine, and how you’d handle any side effects.
How will I get my treatment?
Only some medical centers have staff with the proper training to give immunotherapy drugs and know the side effects to watch for. Talk with your doctor about where you’d need to go for treatment. If it’s not nearby, see if you can talk to a social worker at the facility about the kind of arrangements you’ll need to make during your care.
How often you get treatment depends on the drug. For instance, if your doctor wants you to have IL-2, you could get up to 14 doses, 8 hours apart, for 5 days. You’ll stay in the hospital so your doctor can keep a close eye on your health. Some people may stay up to 10 days.
You can take other immunotherapy drugs without a hospital stay. Some people who get a newer drug called nivolumab (Opdivo) could get a dose by IV every 2 weeks.
Since scientists are studying many new immunotherapy drugs, your doctor may also suggest that you join a clinical trial. This is a study that tests a new drug to see how well it works. Your doctor may know about a clinical trial that’s a good fit for you.
How do I know if immunotherapy is right for me?
Only certain cancers are responsive to the treatment. If you are offered immunotherapy, you may or may not have a lot of questions for your doctor.
Here are some things you might want to ask:
- What are the pros and cons?
- What are the goals for this treatment.
- Will I have any other treatments?
- Will I still be able to go to work, be active, and go about my daily life?
- If I have side effects, how can I deal with them?
It’s normal to feel anxious about starting a new cancer treatment. You want to make sure you’re making the right decision for your health. You may decide to get a second opinion before you make up your mind. Unless you need to start this treatment right away, take time to talk to your doctor, research the medicine they’d like you to start, and get input from people you trust.