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What Is Immunotherapy?

Although immunotherapy has been around for 30 years, significant advancements have occurred most recently in the last few years. Lung cancer and melanoma are currently being treated with FDA approved immunotherapies, and a number of new approvals are expected in the coming year. There is enthusiasm in this area due to the significant number of patients who have had positive responses or have had long-lasting remissions not previously seen within cancer care.

“Immuno” is a reference to the immune system. The body’s immune system is well-equipped for fighting off bacteria, viruses and other invaders, but cancer is often too much for the immune system to handle on its own. Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that helps the body’s natural defense system fight cancer by enhancing your immune system so it can attack powerful cancer cells.

How Is Immunotherapy Used?

Immunotherapy may be used alone or in conjunction with surgery or radiation to:

  • Stop or slow the growth of cancer cells
  • Kill cancer cells
  • Stop cancer from spreading to other parts of the body

Types of Immunotherapy

There are several types of immunotherapy drugs:

  1. Monoclonal antibodies are proteins that attach to certain proteins in cancer cells, marking where the immune system should attack.
  2. Immune checkpoint inhibitors block a protein on cancer cells that stop the immune system from attacking.
  3. Treatment vaccines are made up of cancer cells, partial cancer cells or antigens enhance the immune system.
  4. T-cell transfer therapy boosts the natural ability of your T cells to fight cancer.
  5. Immune system modulators enhance the body’s immune response against cancer.

Immunotherapy is typically administered through an IV every two to four weeks. While this type of treatment still has its own set of side effects, they tend to be milder than with traditional chemotherapy.

What Cancers Can Be Treated With Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy drugs are developed to work with specific types of cancers, so not every patient may benefit or qualify for this type of therapy. Immunotherapy treatment is currently approved for the treatment of:

  • Melanoma
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Non-small cell lung cancer
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Renal cell cancer

Numerous clinical trials are currently underway are Southern Cancer Center, exploring new immunotherapies and new uses for existing immunotherapies, visit our clinical trials page to learn more.

Side Effects of Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy drugs are most frequently given intravenously, but some may be administered orally in a tablet or capsule. Even though immunotherapy is a drug-based treatment like chemotherapy, it typically does not trigger the same side effects chemotherapy does, such as nausea and hair loss. However, the side effects of immunotherapy tend to be fewer and less severe.

Immunotherapy helps your own immune system attack cancer cells or enhances your immune system to fight cancer. These side effects are often dependent on your health going into treatment, how advanced the cancer is, and the type and dose of therapy you are given.

Side effects of immunotherapy often depend upon the type of treatment you receive. Side effects can be mild, moderate, or severe.

Other immunotherapy side effects may include:

  • Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, aches, weakness, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, fatigue, and headache
  • Bacterial, viral, or yeast infection
  • Swelling and fluid retention-related weight gain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Rash
  • Pneumonitis
  • Endocrinopathies
  • Hepatitis

Notify your physician of any side effects.