What is immunotherapy?
Cancer may develop when the immune system breaks down or is not functioning adequately. Immunotherapy (also called biological therapy and biotherapy) uses the body's immune system to fight cancer. Immunotherapy works by either stimulating your immune system to attack cancer cells or providing your immune system with what it needs, such as antibodies, to fight cancer.
Common types of immunotherapy include:
- Monoclonal antibodies: These are man-made versions of immune system proteins. Antibodies can be useful in treating cancer because they can be designed to attack a very specific part of a cancer cell.
- Cancer vaccines: Vaccines are substances designed to trigger an immune response in the body against certain diseases.
- Non-specific immunotherapies: These treatments stimulate the immune system in a general way to increase activity against cancer cells. Some examples include man-made versions of cytokines, a chemical in immune cells, such as interleukins and interferons.
New knowledge about how the immune system works is helping guide how we use immunotherapy to treat cancer.
Experienced care team
With our team approach to care, our doctors and clinicians work together to come up with treatment options that meet your needs. Immunotherapy may be an option for you if you have breast, prostate, brain, kidney or spinal cancer, along with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia or melanoma. The treatment may work better for some cancers, so your doctor would monitor your progress closely and may pair immunotherapy with other treatments.
Personalized treatment approach
Patients and their caregivers are the ones who ultimately decide which treatment they want to pursue. Our clinicians are sensitive to your concerns and work to design treatment options that are appropriate for your needs and goals. We will provide you with the information you need to make an informed decision about immunotherapy.
Managing side effects
Immunotherapy can cause a variety of side effects, including fatigue, nausea, mouth sores, diarrhea, high blood pressure and fluid buildup, usually in the legs. Breast cancer patients, in particular, may experience fever, chills, pain, weakness, vomiting, headaches and rashes. The side effects of immunotherapy generally become less severe after the first treatment.
Throughout your treatment, your care team will provide integrative oncology services, including nutrition therapy, naturopathic medicine, pain management, oncology rehabilitation, mind-body medicine and spiritual support. These therapies can help reduce side effects and improve your overall quality of life during immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy for melanoma
Certain drugs, such as imiquimod or BCG vaccine, can boost the body’s natural immune response against melanoma tumors, and may be applied to or injected directly into the melanoma tumor. Alpha-interferon, interleukin-2 (IL-2), and ipilimumab are used to treat some cases of advanced stage melanoma, and stimulate the immune system to atatck melanoma cells.
Ipilimumab (Yervoy™) is a form of cancer immunotherapy approved by the FDA for the treatment of metastatic melanoma. Ipilimumab is a monoclonal antibody that targets CTLA-4, a protein that helps to regulate the immune system by suppressing the activity of T cells. By blocking the action of CTLA-4, Ipilimumab acts to take the brakes off the immune system, allowing it to fight the cancer cells. This agent is used to treat melanoma that has spread or that cannot be treated by surgery.
In a clinical trial, ipilimumab helped some patients with metastatic melanoma to live longer. However, this form of immunotherapy can also lead to serious immune-related side effects in the intestines, liver, hormone-producing glands, eyes, nerves, skin and other organs, so your doctors at CTCA may discuss whether this drug is right for you. If it is, your CTCA care team will work with you to reduce or prevent these potentially serious side effects.