When Immunotherapy for Head and Neck Cancer Stops Working

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on October 14, 2019

Immunotherapy is a treatment that slows the growth of metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (HNSCC). 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.

Sometimes, though, immunotherapy stops working and your cancer starts to grow again. Even if you've tried many other treatments before, you're not out of options. You can try others to help you live more comfortably, and possibly longer.

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

Look Into Other Treatments

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

Other treatments for metastatic HNSCC include:

  • Radiation. It uses high-energy X-rays or another kind of radiation to kill cancer cells or stop their growth. Radiation can be delivered from outside your body, or from inside your body right near the cancer. A treatment called hyperfractionated radiation therapy gives you two, smaller doses of radiation each day instead of one big dose.
  • Chemotherapy. It uses drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body. You get the medicine by mouth or through a vein.

Ask your doctor how each treatment might affect your cancer. Also find out what side effects it can cause. That will help you know if it’s an option you want to choose.

Join a Clinical Trial

If you've tried every treatment and nothing has worked, you may want to join a clinical trial.

Scientists look for new ways to treat cancer in these research studies. They test new treatments to see if they are safe and if they work.

A clinical trial gives you a chance to try a new medicine that isn't available to everyone. The new drug might work better than immunotherapy and other cancer treatments you've had. 

Your doctor can tell you if one of these studies might be a good fit for you. You can also look for clinical trials for metastatic HNSCC on the website Ask about the benefits and risks of the treatment before you enroll.

Try Palliative Care

Palliative care improves how you feel day-to-day while you are treated for cancer, or after your treatment has stopped working. You can get it at any time during your cancer treatment, even right from the start. You get this care at a cancer center or at home.

Palliative care addresses both your physical and emotional needs. It can include:

  • Medicines, physical therapy, diet, and relaxation techniques to relieve side effects from your treatment
  • Counseling to ease the worry and sadness your cancer can 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 for you, it doesn’t mean they're giving up on your care. It’s another tool that can ease your symptoms. If they don’t bring it up on their own, ask them if it might help you feel more comfortable.

Go Into Hospice Care

Hospice care is one type of palliative care. Your doctor might recommend hospice care when your treatments have stopped working and your cancer has spread.

You can get hospice care 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 handle your disease.

Hospice care might include:

  • Medicine to relieve your pain
  • Counseling
  • Physical therapy
  • Nutrition
  • Massage
  • Art or music therapy
  • Spiritual guidance

Stay Positive

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

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.

WebMD Medical Reference



American Society of Clinical Oncology: "Hospice Care."

Cleveland Clinic: "Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary."

National Cancer Institute: "Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary Treatment (PDQ) - Patient Version." "Palliative Care in Cancer."

Nature Clinical Practice Oncology: "Drug Insight: Cetuximab in the Treatment of Recurrent and Metastatic Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Head and Neck."

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