Your immune system is made up of your white blood cells plus the organs and tissues of your lymph system, like your bone marrow. Its main job is to help your body fight off disease and stay healthy.
Immunotherapy drugs help your immune system work harder or make it easier for it to find and get rid of cancer cells.
Several immunotherapy drugs have been approved to fight cancer, and hundreds more are being tested in clinical trials (research studies that use volunteers to test new medicines). If immunotherapy seems like the best way to fight your cancer, your doctor may know of a clinical trial you can join.
If your doctor suggests immunotherapy to fight your cancer, there’s a lot to talk to them about before you decide if it’s right for you.
What Are the Benefits?
There are many reasons your doctor might think immunotherapy is a good choice for you:
Immunotherapy may work when other treatments don’t. Some cancers (like skin cancer) don’t respond well to radiation or chemotherapy but start to go away after immunotherapy.
It can help other cancer treatments work better. Other therapies you have, like chemotherapy, may work better if you also have immunotherapy.
It causes fewer side effects than other treatments. This is because it targets just your immune system and not all the cells in your body.
Your cancer may be less likely to return. When you have immunotherapy, your immune system learns to go after cancer cells if they ever come back. This is called immune memory, and it could help you stay cancer-free for a longer time.
What Are the Risks?
Immunotherapy holds a lot of promise as a cancer treatment. Still, it can cause some problems.
You might have a bad reaction. The area where the medication goes into your body could hurt, itch, swell, turn red, or get sore.
There are side effects. Some types of immunotherapy rev up your immune system and make you feel like you have the flu, complete with fever, chills, and fatigue. Others could cause problems like swelling, weight gain from extra fluids, heart palpitations, a stuffy head, and diarrhea. Most of the time, these ease up after your first treatment.
Here are some steps you can take to help minimize the risks:
- Consult with an expert: It is essential to consult with a qualified healthcare professional who specializes in immunotherapy. They can evaluate your medical history, assess potential risks, and guide you through the treatment process.
- Understand the treatment: Educate yourself about immunotherapy, including its benefits, potential risks, and side effects. This will help you make informed decisions and be aware of any warning signs or symptoms to watch out for.
- Discuss your medical history: Inform your healthcare provider about any existing medical conditions, allergies, or previous treatments you have undergone. Certain medical conditions or medications may interact with immunotherapy, increasing the risk of complications.
- Monitor side effects: During treatment, be vigilant about monitoring any side effects. Common side effects of immunotherapy include fatigue, flu-like symptoms, skin reactions, and digestive issues. Report any unusual or severe side effects promptly to your healthcare provider.
- Regular check-ups and tests: Follow the recommended schedule for check-ups and tests to monitor your progress and detect any potential issues early on. This allows your healthcare team to adjust your treatment plan if necessary.
- Supportive care: Engage in self-care practices to support your overall well-being. This includes maintaining a healthy lifestyle, getting enough rest, eating a balanced diet, and managing stress. These practices can help strengthen your immune system and potentially reduce the risks associated with immunotherapy.
- Open communication: Maintain open and honest communication with your healthcare team. Share any concerns or questions you may have, and don’t hesitate to seek clarification or further information. Your healthcare provider is there to support you throughout the treatment process.
It can harm organs and systems. Some of these drugs can cause your immune system to attack organs like your heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, or intestines.
It isn’t a quick fix. In some cases, immunotherapy takes longer to work than other treatments. Your cancer may not go away quickly.
It doesn’t work for everyone. Right now, immunotherapy works for less than half the people who try it. Many people only have a partial response. This means your tumor could stop growing or get smaller, but it doesn’t go away. Doctors aren’t sure yet why immunotherapy helps only some people.
Your body could get used to it. Over time, immuno therapy may stop having an effect on your cancer cells. This means that even if it works at first, your tumor could start to grow again.