Managing Side Effects of Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on December 07, 2021

You and your doctor may choose immunotherapy to treat your advanced lung cancer. Unlike chemotherapy, which kills both healthy cells and cancer cells, immunotherapy helps your immune system to better target and kill the diseased cells.

But side effects can happen. Let your doctor know as soon as you notice them. Early treatment will make them easier to manage.

Reactions to Injections

You may have pain, swelling, soreness, redness, itchiness, or a rash in the area where the medicine went into your vein. This usually goes away on its own. You can take acetaminophen or an over-the-counter antihistamine to ease the discomfort. Just make sure your doctor says it’s OK. Cold compresses can also help.

Flu-Like Symptoms

You might feel like you have the flu, right down to the fatigue, fever, chills, and muscle and joint aches. Acetaminophen can help, if your doctor OKs it. Drink plenty of fluids. Take small sips of cold water, ginger ale, apple juice, or other clear liquids all day long. A little light exercise can help with fatigue. Move your arms and legs while you lie in bed or sit in your chair. Don’t overdo it. Move only as much as your doctor says to.

Cough and Shortness of Breath

If your doctor gives you medicines to help with your cough and breathing, take them just as prescribed. You can also raise your upper body to a 45-degree angle. Lift the head of the bed (you can put bricks or blocks under it) or prop yourself up with pillows. Pursed-lip breathing may also help. Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through puckered lips. If you have a sudden shortness of breath, get medical help right away.

Nausea and Loss of Appetite

You may just not want to eat, or you could feel nauseated and queasy. There are ways to feel better and get the nutrition you need. Open a window or use a fan to get some fresh air into the room. Getting your body all the liquid it needs will boost your appetite and ease the nausea. Take small sips of water and other clear fluids -- like sports drinks, ginger ale, or tea -- throughout the day.  Suck on ice chips, frozen fruit juice chips, or ice pops to boost your overall fluid intake. The cold sensation in your mouth may ease your tummy a bit. 

If you don’t want to eat or feel sick to your stomach, try several small meals a day. Choose high-protein, high-calorie foods. Add butter, sauces, and syrups to your dishes to make them tasty and add some much-needed calories.

You can also drink your meals. Milkshakes, smoothies, and protein shakes may go down better than solid food. They’re high in calories, and you can add nutrients to them with fruit, veggies, and protein powder. Cold foods like shakes can also be easier when nausea is a problem.

Diarrhea or Constipation

Bowel trouble is another common side effect of immunotherapy. Some people have diarrhea, while others get constipated. The same home remedies can help with either problem. Drink lots of water or other clear fluids. Avoid sugary drinks and fruit juices. They can make diarrhea worse. Suck on ice chips or ice pops to get more liquids into your system.  

Light exercise, even just some simple bed- or chair-based movements, can ease constipation. Do as much as you can, within any limits set by your doctor.

More Serious Side Effects

These drugs take the brakes off your immune system. When it’s going full tilt, it can sometimes attack healthy tissues and organs. Your doctors will keep an eye out for inflammation of your organs, including your lungs (pneumonitis), liver (hepatitis), colon (colitis/diarrhea), and thyroid gland.

These complications can be serious. But your doctor can control them with medicine. Or they may take you off immunotherapy and try something else.

Show Sources


National Cancer Institute: “Appetite Loss,” “Constipation,” “Immunotherapy,” “Nausea and Vomiting,”

Dana Farber Cancer Institute: “What Are the Side Effects of Immunotherapy?”

American Lung Association: “What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer Immunotherapy.” “Understanding the Role of Immuno-Oncology in Treating Cancer.”

American Cancer Society: “Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home: Appetite, poor,” “Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home: Constipation,” “Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home: Nausea and Vomiting,” “Shortness of Breath.”

CA: A Journal for Clinicians: “Self-Care Activities for the Person with Nausea and Vomiting.”

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