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What is immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy treatment helps your immune system to work better to fight cancer cells.
About the immune system
Your immune system protects you against disease and infection. Sometimes cancer cells find a way of hiding from the immune system. This allows cancer to develop or spread.
How immunotherapy works
Different immunotherapy treatments work in different ways. Some help the immune system to attack the cancer directly. Others boost the immune system in a more general way.
When is immunotherapy used?
Immunotherapy treatments are used for particular cancer types which have been shown to respond to them. Or you may have a new immunotherapy treatment as part of a clinical trial. Your doctor will tell you if there are immunotherapy treatments for your type of cancer.
Immunotherapy is not suitable for everyone. Your doctor will look at:
- Your overall health
- The type of cancer you have
- If the cancer has spread (the stage) and if so, how far
- Your treatment history
- Ask about any possible side-effects
- Check if you need to do anything to prepare for treatment. For example, getting dental work done or having any recommended vaccinations
Tests before immunotherapy
Before you have immunotherapy you might need to have tests to find out whether the treatment is likely to work. These tests look for changes in certain proteins, genes or chromosomes. Testing can be done on your blood, bone marrow or cancer tissue, depending on your cancer type. Read more about cancer tests.
How is immunotherapy given?
Intravenously (through a vein)
Most immunotherapies are given intravenously (through a vein). You may have a port or line (thin tube) inserted, which can be used to access your vein every time you have treatment. We have more information on these injection devices and how to care for them.
Some treatments are given as a tablet. We have more information on taking cancer drugs by mouth (oral therapies).
Immunotherapy is usually given in a course of treatments. This course can last weeks or months, depending on your cancer and the type of immunotherapy. You may a combination of immunotherapy treatments or have other treatments too, such as targeted therapies or chemotherapy.
What are the side-effects of immunotherapy?
The side-effects of immunotherapy depend on the drugs being used and vary from person to person. Because immunotherapy acts on the immune system, it can cause inflammation in any part of your body.
Your doctor and nurse will explain your treatment to you in more detail and tell you about any likely side-effects.
Track and report any side-effects
It’s very important to be aware of any changes and let your medical team know about them.
Even if a symptom is not troubling you too much, it’s still best to let your medical team know how you’re feeling, as it may be a symptom of something else. For example, fatigue may be a sign that your treatment is affecting your hormone levels. If this is the case, you can have treatment to help you feel better.
Types of immunotherapy
There are different types of immunotherapy treatments, which work in different ways. For example:
- Checkpoint inhibitors
- Monoclonal antibodies
- Cancer vaccines
- Adoptive cell transfer
For more information
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