What is immunotherapy?

Some cancer treatment therapies use your immune system to fight cancer. This is called immunotherapy. As part of its normal function, the immune system detects and destroys abnormal cells and prevents the growth of many cancers.

Cancer cells can find ways to avoid the immune system. Immunotherapy for cancer helps the immune system to better fight the cancer cells. These drugs have been approved to treat many types of cancer, however, they are not for every cancer type.

Immunotherapy may also be called biological response modifier (BRM) therapy, biological therapy or biotherapy.

Immunotherapy cancer treatment finds and kills cancer cells by:

  • Stopping or controlling the processes that allow cancer to grow
  • Making cancer cells easier to find by the immune system so they can be killed
  • Increasing the killing power of immune system cells
  • Training immune cells to fight cancer cells
  • Stopping cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body

Biological therapy can be used alone to treat cancer. Or it can be used with other treatments. These include chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Treatment Overview

How does the immune system fight cancer?

The immune system has different types of white blood cells. Each type of white blood cell has a different way to fight against foreign or diseased cells, including cancer. These types of white blood cells are in the bloodstream. They flow to every part of the body.

What are the types of immunotherapy?

There are many types of biological therapy used to treat cancer.

Nonspecific immunomodulating agents
These medicines boost the immune system in a general way. The 2 types often used to treat cancer are:

  • Interferons. Interferons are a natural type of biological response modifier (BRM) in the body. They are also made in the lab. They improve the way the immune system acts against some kinds of cancer cells. The medicine may work directly on cancer cells to slow their growth. Some interferons may also tell white blood cells to fight cancer cells.
  • Interleukins. These are proteins called cytokines. They are naturally in the body. They can also be made in a lab. They boost the growth and activity of many immune cells. This can help the immune cells destroy cancer cells.

Colony-stimulating factors
These medicines help stem cells in the bone marrow make more white blood cells. White blood cells are part of your immune system. They help you fight off germs. Chemo and other cancer treatments slow the bone marrow’s process for making new white blood cells. This puts you at higher risk for infections.

Monoclonal antibodies
These are medicines that stick to certain parts of cancer cells. These medicines are made in a lab. Some of these antibodies work by tagging cancer cells. This helps them to be found and killed by parts of the immune system. Others work by stopping some functions that cancer cells need to survive. In some cases, the antibodies are attached to another substance. This may be another anticancer medicine, a radioactive substance or another BRM. When the antibodies attach to cancer cells, they send the other substance into the cancer. This helps to destroy the cancer cells.

Vaccine therapy
Vaccine therapy is a growing area of cancer research. Vaccine therapy may help the body's immune system start attacking the cancer cells. For infectious illness, such as flu, vaccines are given before the disease starts. But cancer vaccines are given after the disease starts. This is done when the amount of cancer is small.

CAR T-cell therapy
CAR T-cell therapy takes the T cells from a person's blood and changes them in a lab to add a gene for a receptor. This helps the T cells find and destroy cancer cells. The changed T cells are then put back in the person's body. Some people may have chemotherapy before they receive the CAR T-cell infusion. This helps make the CAR T cells more effective.

Benefits and Risks

What are the benefits of immunotherapy

Immunotherapy’s benefits include an improved outlook and survival rate of many cancers, can prevent spread of cancer and the side effects are typically less harsh than other types of treatments.

What are the risks of immunotherapy?

The risks of immunotherapy depend on the individual, the type and stage of cancer and the type of medicine used to treat it.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy side effects vary depending on the type of therapy given. They may be mild or severe. Or you may have no side effects. Ask your health care team what side effects you may expect for your specific treatment. Side effects may include:

  • Skin rash, redness, itching and dryness
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Mild to severe allergic reaction
  • Low blood pressure
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, aches, and fatigue
  • A rash or swelling at the injection site
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Tremors

Management & Support

Talk with your health care team about what side effects you should watch for and when they should be reported. Your health care team will also watch you for these side effects.

You don’t have to go through the cancer journey alone. There are many services you can turn to before, during and after treatment.

Immunotherapy for Kidney Cancer
Your provider may suggest trying immunotherapy if your kidney cancer has spread to other areas of your body.
Immunotherapy for Lung Cancer
Immunotherapy might be used if you’re diagnosed with advanced non-small cell or advanced small cell lung cancer.
Immunotherapy for Bladder Cancer
There are many reasons why you might receive immunotherapy for bladder cancer, especially if it’s in an early stage.