What is immunotherapy for cancer treatment?
The immune system is the body’s network of cells and organs that help fend off infections and other diseases, including cancer. Conceptually, cancer evolution requires immune evasion. The immune system can be armed and trained to fight cancer, and immunotherapy uses a person’s own immune system to fight certain cancers. There are many different therapies that are considered immunotherapies; the most popular types are called immune checkpoint inhibitors. One of the ways cancer evades immune systems is by creating a target on the cancer cells that allows it to hide from the immune cells (lymphocytes)—like a curtain where you can’t see the other side. Immune check point inhibitors raise this curtain or blind and allow the lymphocyte to see the cancer and potentially eliminate it. As a result, the immune system becomes better at finding and attacking cancer cells.
There are several different ways to administer immunotherapy. They may be:
- Given by infusion through an IV line
- Put directly into the affected organ (for example, the bladder in someone with bladder cancer)
- Injected in the cancer lesion (for example for melanoma)
Which types of cancer are treated with immunotherapy?
Not all cancer sites and cancer types benefit from immunotherapy. There are certain biomarkers to find the right cancers for immunotherapy for several different kinds of cancer:
- Bladder cancer
- Breast cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Head and neck cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Lung cancer
What are some common side effects of immunotherapy?
Side effects depend on the type of immunotherapy used. Common ones include:
- Flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue and body aches
- Digestive problems, such as diarrhea
- Skin problems, such as rashes and itching
How long is the immunotherapy given?
Treatment schedules vary widely and is dictated by cancer type, and the immunotherapy agent used for the treatment.
How can you prepare for immunotherapy?
If you will be starting immunotherapy soon:
- Talk with your healthcare provider about the specific type of treatment you will receive and what it will entail. Discuss potential side effects.
- Immunotherapy can sometimes cause inflammation due to the attack of lymphocytes on normal organs, including pneumonitis, hepatitis, and colitis. These conditions are life-threating if they go on too long. Discuss with your providers to learn signs and symptoms related to these important complications.
- Talk with your employer and human resources department. Discuss any time away from work or adjustments in your job that you may need during treatment.
How can you support a loved one through this treatment?
If a loved one is undergoing immunotherapy:
- Offer to provide transportation or run errands for them. Prepare food for them and help with other daily activities.
- Keep your distance if you have a fever, flu symptoms, or other signs of infection.
- Encourage your loved one to share their feelings about cancer with you. Often, being a good listener is one of the most helpful things you can do.