Immunotherapy drugs stimulate the body’s own immune system to battle cancer. Although immunotherapies began to be used officially in the late 1990s, some believe the concept dates back more than 100 years to when doctors first noticed that some cancer patients went into remission after their immune system fought a fever.

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What is Immunotherapy?

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. Immunotherapy success rates have proven favorable.

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

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

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 to 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. Immunotherapy tends to have fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy, but it does continue to have side effects.

What Cancers Can Be Treated With Immunotherapy?

Currently, there are more than 900 immunotherapy clinical trials. Immunotherapy drugs are developed to work with specific types of cancers, so not every cancer patient qualifies for immunotherapy. 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 Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, exploring new immunotherapies and new uses for existing immunotherapies, including for the treatment of early-stage breast cancer.

Side Effects of Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy drugs are most frequently administered orally in a tablet or capsule, or intravenously. 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. Immunotherapy side effects are often dependent on your health going into treatment, how advanced the cancer is, and the type and dose of therapy you’re given.

Side effects of immunotherapy often depend upon the type of treatment you receive. Side effects of immunotherapy 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.