Metastatic Head and Neck Cancer: Is Immunotherapy Right for Me?

Immunotherapy is a promising new way to treat a number of cancers, including metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (HNSCC).

If your doctor recommends it for you, you may already have tried other treatments for your disease, like chemotherapy or radiation. It can work for some people who’ve not had success with other treatments, but it’s not the right choice for everyone.

Whether or not to try immunotherapy is entirely up to you. You should talk with your doctor to make sure you understand all the pros and cons of these drugs, and how they’ll affect your cancer and your everyday life. But keep a few other things in mind as you’re making your decision.

Learn More About the Treatment

There are many different types of immunotherapy, so make sure you ask your doctor the details about the specific drug he’s recommending. That could include:

  • Why are you recommending immunotherapy for me?
  • How will this medicine make me feel?
  • Will this be the only treatment I get right now, or will I need another at the same time?
  • How will I get the drug?
  • How often will I go for treatment?

Like most drugs, immunotherapy can cause side effects. Some of them can be serious, like an allergic reaction, a major infection, or losing your ability to have a baby. Make sure you understand the risks and how they compare with the benefits you’d get.

There’s been a lot of news about immunotherapy. Some of the reasons people are excited about it is because:

  • Doctors believe it’s generally safe and doesn’t have as many of the side effects that can come with more traditional chemotherapies.
  • Often it can work well when you take it with other treatments. The increases the chance that the therapy will work.
  • It’s a new way to fight some cancers that had few treatment options before.

Who Shouldn’t Have Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy works by using your immune system, so it needs to be healthy before you start. The treatment may not be for you if you have a condition that affects your body’s defenses, such as:

  • Autoimmune conditions such as Addison’s disease, thyroiditis/Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, scleroderma, myasthenia gravis, Goodpasture’s syndrome, and Graves' disease
  • If you have infections that require antibiotics
  • If you have chronic infections such as HIV, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C
  • Serious cardiac disease
  • You’re taking drugs that affect your immune system

Be sure to talk to your doctor about any concerns or questions you may have about immunotherapy. Together, you can decide if it’s the right treatment for you.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on October 12, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Medscape: “Which Cancer Patient Is a Candidate for Immunotherapy?”

American Society of Clinical Oncology: “Understanding Immunotherapy.”

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “New Findings Clarify How Immunotherapy Works – and Why, In Some People, It Doesn’t.”

Cancer Research Institute: “Cancer Immunotherapy: Should You Participate?”

Cancer Research UK: “Cetuximab (Erbitux).”

© 2019 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.