Immunotherapy for Cancer

Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps your immune system fight cancer. The immune system helps your body fight infections and other diseases. It is made up of white blood cells and organs and tissues of the lymph system. Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy; a treatment that uses substances made from living organisms to treat cancer. Immunotherapy drugs have been approved to treat many types of cancer. Every cancer type is unique, though, and immunology and immunotherapy are impacting each cancer in different ways.

Immunotherapy is used in the treatment of these cancers:

Lung Cancer (small cell type; Non-small cell type) – Kidney Cancer – Breast Cancer (triple negative type) – Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – Multiple Myeloma – Malignant Melanoma – Skin Cancer – Liver Cancer – Bladder Cancer

Types of Immunotherapy

Several types of immunotherapy are used to treat cancer. These include:

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors, which are drugs that block immune checkpoints. These checkpoints are a normal part of the immune system and keep immune responses from being too strong. By blocking them, these drugs allow immune cells to respond more strongly to cancer.
  • T-cell transfer therapy, which is a treatment that boosts the natural ability of your T cells to fight cancer. In this treatment, immune cells are taken from your tumor. Those that are most active against your cancer are selected or changed in the lab to better attack your cancer cells, grown in large batches, and put back into your body through a needle in a vein. T-cell transfer therapy may also be called adoptive cell therapy, adoptive immunotherapy, or immune cell therapy.
  • Monoclonal antibodies, which are immune system proteins created in the lab that are designed to bind to specific targets on cancer cells. Some monoclonal antibodies mark cancer cells so that they will be better seen and destroyed by the immune system. Such monoclonal antibodies are a type of immunotherapy. Monoclonal antibodies may also be called therapeutic antibodies.
  • Treatment vaccines, which work against cancer by boosting your immune system’s response to cancer cells. Treatment vaccines are different from the ones that help prevent disease.
  • Immune system modulators, which enhance the body’s immune response against cancer. Some of these agents affect specific parts of the immune system, whereas others affect the immune system in a more general way.

How is immunotherapy given?

Different forms of immunotherapy may be given in different ways. 

  • Intravenous (IV)
    The immunotherapy goes directly into a vein.
  • Oral
    The immunotherapy comes in pills or capsules that you swallow.
  • Topical
    The immunotherapy comes in a cream that you rub onto your skin. This type of immunotherapy can be used for very early skin cancer.
  • Intravesical
    The immunotherapy goes directly into the bladder.

Side Effects

The most common side effects of immunotherapy include:

Skin Reactions; Skin redness, blistering, and dryness are common reactions to immunotherapy.

Flu-like Symtoms; Fatigue (feeling tired), fever, chills, weakness, nausea (feeling sick to your stomach), vomiting (throwing up), dizziness, body aches, and high or low blood pressure are all possible side effects of immunotherapy.

Other possible side effects you may experience include:

Muscle aches, Shortness of breath (trouble breathing), Swelling of legs (edema), Sinus congestion, Headaches, Weight gain from retaining fluid, Diarrhea, Cough and Hormone changes.

Managing Side Effects

Different types of immunotherapy can cause different side effects. Many side effects depend on the type of treatment, the type and location of the cancer, and a person’s general health. Before your immunotherapy begins, Dr. Hassan Pervez will talk about the possible side effects of your specific treatment.

Dr. Hassan can help you prevent or treat many side effects. This is called palliative care or supportive care and is an important part of cancer treatment. Let us know about any new or worsening medical problems you have as soon as possible, even if you do not think it is serious or related to the immunotherapy.

Side effects of immunotherapy can be mild, moderate, or even life-threatening. Depending on how severe your side effects are, your doctor may pause the treatment or prescribe a type of medication to manage the side effects.

If you receive medical care at an emergency room or other place not familiar with your cancer treatment, be sure to tell the health care team there that you are receiving immunotherapy. If possible, provide the name of the specific drug(s), your oncologist, and/or  where you receive immunotherapy. Keeping this information written on paper and stored in your wallet can be helpful in case you need it quickly.

Benefits of Immunotherapy

There are many reasons your doctor might think immunotherapy is a good choice for you: Immunotherapy may work when other treatments don’t. Some cancers (like skin cancer) don’t respond well to radiation or chemotherapy but start to go away after immunotherapy.

It can help other cancer treatments work better. Other therapies you have, like chemotherapy, may work better if you also have immunotherapy.

It causes fewer side effects than other treatments. This is because it targets just your immune system and not all the cells in your body.

Your cancer may be less likely to return. When you have immunotherapy, your immune system learns to go after cancer cells if they ever come back. This is called immunomemory, and it could help you stay cancer-free for a longer time.

These five science-backed tips can help keep your immune system as strong as possible during cancer treatment.

  1. Sleep Well
  2. Eat Smart
  3. Get Moving
  4. Manage Stress
  5. Stay away from illness

It’s a relatively new treatment compared with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, but it’s commonly used to treat some cancers. It works better on certain forms of the disease than others.