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Immunotherapy

Reasons to Have One, What to Expect, Associated Risks & More

Key Points

  • Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that boosts the body's immune response to cancer and directly attacks cancer cells, leading to longer remission times.
  • There are two main types of immunotherapy: cytokines and Bacillus Calmette-Guérin that enhance the immune response, and checkpoint inhibitors, adoptive cell transfer, monoclonal antibodies, and treatment vaccines that directly target cancer.
  • Side effects of immunotherapy can include skin reactions, flu-like symptoms, and organ inflammation.
  • The effectiveness of immunotherapy varies depending on the patient's health, the stage and type of cancer, and the type of immunotherapy used.
  • Immunotherapy can be administered in different ways, including intravenously, orally, or directly into the bladder, and it's crucial to discuss potential side effects and treatment adjustments with your doctor.

4 Reasons You Would Need Immunotherapy

1. Target Cancer Cells

Some types of immunotherapy such as monoclonal antibodies work by specifically targeting cancer cells that may be hiding from the immune system. Cancer cells will typically multiply without stopping and spread to surrounding tissues and organs, but monoclonal antibodies make it easier for the immune system to locate and destroy those cells.[1] Checkpoint inhibitors are another immunotherapy that interacts with cancer cells to prevent attacks on the immune system.

2. Boost Immunity

Some immunotherapy treatments fight cancer by enhancing the body’s immune response to cancer cells and tumors. Interferons and interleukins are cytokines that help the immune system respond better to all types of cancer, while Bacillus Calmette-Guérin is immunotherapy for bladder cancer that causes an immune response against cancer cells.[1]

3. Complement Other Treatments

Immunotherapy may help boost the effects of other cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy by improving the way tumors respond to those treatments. Many doctors are starting to combine immunotherapy with traditional cancer treatments to help patients achieve a better outcome.[2]

4. Achieve Remission

Immunotherapy is associated with a longer remission time than chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. Remission from immunotherapy tends to last at least one year, while remission from chemotherapy usually only lasts several weeks or months.[3] Immunotherapy helps condition the immune system to fight and kill cancer cells if they ever come back.

Understanding Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that helps the immune system fight cancer cells and shrink tumors. Immunotherapy is a biological therapy that involves the use of substances made from living organisms, or versions of those substances created in a lab. There are two main types of immunotherapy used to treat cancer — one type stimulates and boosts the immune system’s response to cancer, and the other type helps the immune system attack cancer cells and tumors directly.[1]

The two types of immunotherapies used to boost the body’s immune response to cancer include cytokines and Bacillus Calmette-Guérin. Immunotherapies that assist the immune system to directly attack cancer include checkpoint inhibitors, adoptive cell transfer, monoclonal antibodies, and treatment vaccines.[1]

Immunotherapy can be administered intravenously or taken in the form of a pill, capsule, or cream. People diagnosed with bladder cancer may have immunotherapy placed directly into the bladder. Immunotherapy treatments may be given in cycles or be administered every day, week, or month depending on factors such as the type of cancer, its severity, and how well the patient responds to treatment.[4]

Risks of Immunotherapy

The most common side effects reported for immunotherapy are skin reactions at the needle site for those who receive intravenous therapy.[4] These reactions may include redness, itchiness, soreness, swelling, rash, and pain.[1] Flu-like symptoms are another common side effect of immunotherapy and may include headache, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, difficulty breathing, muscle and joint pain, and high or low blood pressure.[1]

Some immunotherapy drugs may cause side effects that begin 2 to 3 months after beginning treatment. Immunotherapy drugs can trigger inflammation in organs that cause a range of unwanted side effects such as diarrhea, coughing, shortness of breath, skin rash, heart palpitations, weight gain, and hormonal imbalances.[3]

What to Expect with Immunotherapy

Every patient responds to immunotherapy in different ways and will experience different side effects. Factors that may affect the way your body responds to immunotherapy include the state of your health before beginning treatment, the stage of cancer, the type of cancer, and the type of immunotherapy you’re receiving. Doctors and nurses cannot usually predict the outcome of immunotherapy or how this treatment could make you feel.[1]

You may receive immunotherapy to treat cancer and/or its side effects, or as a complement to therapies like chemotherapy and radiation. Your doctor will work closely with you during immunotherapy to observe how your body reacts and will make adjustments to your treatment plan as needed.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Immunotherapy

  • What are the known side effects and complications of immunotherapy?
  • How soon could I experience side effects?
  • What can I do to treat any side effects caused by immunotherapy?
  • Which foods should I avoid while receiving immunotherapy?
  • Will immunotherapy interfere with any medications or supplements I’m currently using?
  • Will I be at increased risk for infection while receiving immunotherapy?
  • Am I at risk for bleeding?
  • Can I keep receiving immunotherapy if I become pregnant?
  • How can I keep up my strength and energy while receiving immunotherapy?
  • Will immunotherapy cause my hair to fall out?
  • Is it okay for me to spend time in the sun while receiving immunotherapy?
  • When should I call my doctor?
  • How long will I need to receive immunotherapy?
  • Do I have to visit a hospital or clinic to receive immunotherapy?
  • How should I prepare for immunotherapy treatment?
  • Are there certain activities I should avoid while receiving immunotherapy?
  • How often do I need to receive immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy May Also be Known as:

  • Cancer immunotherapy
  • Monoclonal antibodies
  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors
  • Cancer vaccines
  • Cytokines
  • Bacillus Calmette-Guérin
  • BCG
  • Adoptive cell transfer

Frequently asked questions

  • What is immunotherapy?

    Immunotherapy is a form of cancer treatment that boosts the body's immune response and directly attacks cancer cells.
  • How does immunotherapy work?

    It works by using substances made from living organisms or lab-created versions to stimulate the immune system's response to cancer or directly attack cancer cells.
  • What are the main types of immunotherapy?

    The two main types are cytokines and Bacillus Calmette-Guérin, which enhance the immune response, and checkpoint inhibitors, adoptive cell transfer, monoclonal antibodies, and treatment vaccines, which directly target cancer.
  • What are the side effects of immunotherapy?

    Side effects can include skin reactions, flu-like symptoms, and inflammation in organs.
  • Does everyone respond the same way to immunotherapy?

    No, each patient's response to immunotherapy varies depending on their health, the stage and type of cancer, and the type of immunotherapy used.
  • How is immunotherapy administered?

    Immunotherapy can be administered intravenously, orally, or directly into the bladder, depending on the type of cancer and patient response.
  • Should I discuss potential side effects and treatment adjustments with my doctor?

    Yes, it's very important to discuss potential side effects, complications, and treatment adjustments with your doctor.
  • Does immunotherapy replace other cancer treatments?

    No, immunotherapy is often used in combination with other cancer treatments to increase effectiveness.

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