How is Immunotherapy Used to Treat Cancer?
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Within the last ten years, advances in cancer treatments have begun to offer more hope than ever before. One such treatment is immunotherapy, which uses the body’s own immune system to fight diseases. Immunotherapy helps stimulate, boost, or change the functionality of an individual’s natural defenses to more efficiently detect and destroy cancerous cells. Ongoing studies continue to reveal new opportunities to safely and effectively use immunotherapies to combat a variety of different types of cancer.

How does immunotherapy work?

Your immune system is designed to naturally protect you from substances that cause infection or disease. When your immune system detects something potentially harmful, it responds by attacking it. Unfortunately, cancer cells are more difficult for your immune system to identify as foreign since cancer begins in otherwise normal cells already in the body. In addition, cancer cells can be harder to destroy and sometimes certain cancer proteins can turn off immune cells, helping them to evade an attack from the immune system.

To combat this, immunotherapies were developed to help the body’s immune system more easily recognize cancerous cells and target them. There are several different types of immunotherapies, each with a specific purpose. These include:

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors, which block checkpoints in the immune system that prevent it from responding with excessive strength that could impact healthy cells. Blocking these “brakes” ensures immune cells can respond to cancer with full strength.   
  • Monoclonal antibodies, which are man-made proteins created in a lab to target and attach to specific cancerous cells so the immune system can more easily recognize them.
  • Cancer vaccines, which can help the body launch a response to certain diseases or cancers.
  • Immune system modulators, or drugs that boost parts of the immune system.

Immunotherapy is given intravenously as an outpatient treatment, usually in an infusion center. Cancer nurses administer and monitor the appropriate drug and dosage at the frequency recommended by your doctors. Depending on your treatment, each session may last between 30 to 60 minutes over the course of two to six weeks.


What types of cancers can be treated with immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy doesn’t work for every type of cancer, but the number of cancers treatable with immunotherapy continues to grow. It was initially approved for melanoma treatment, and now, there are applications for its use in almost every type of cancer. It’s commonly used to treat lung cancer, esophageal cancer, head and neck cancer, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, and certain types of breast cancer. In certain instances, immunotherapy may be the only treatment. In other cases, immunotherapy may be used alongside other cancer treatments. 

Not everyone with these types of cancer will benefit from immunotherapy, which is why it’s important to get treatment recommendations from a multidisciplinary team of cancer experts who can explain the best treatment options for your unique case. What works for one person may not be the best treatment for another. At MedStar Health, your cancer doctors will take into account the type of cancer you have, the stage of that cancer—how advanced it is, your overall health, and other factors.

How does immunotherapy compare to other cancer treatments?

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are two other common types of cancer treatments that often play important parts in treating cancer. Like immunotherapy, chemotherapy is designed to target and kill cancerous cells. Chemotherapy differs from immunotherapy in that it uses drugs to destroy the cancer whereas immunotherapy harnesses the power of the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer. Overall, immunotherapy is thought to be better tolerated than chemotherapy with fewer side effects and equal or superior efficacy. 

Radiation therapy
is used to precisely direct beams of intense energy to target cancer in certain parts of the body. In contrast, immunotherapy is a systemic therapy that can help kill microscopic cells anywhere in the body, including those that may be invisible on imaging.

What are the side effects of immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is generally considered to be well-tolerated by many patients, compared to other systemic therapies like chemotherapy. However, everyone reacts differently to treatment. The most common side effects are thyroid dysfunction, fatigue, rash, diarrhea, shortness of breath, cough, and hepatitis. Many of these side effects are mild when monitored and managed by your oncologist. However, more severe side effects may warrant steroids to help minimize the impact on your day-to-day life.


Seeking a multidisciplinary approach to cancer treatment.

Your best cancer treatment will vary based on your tumor type, stage of the tumor, and your overall health. That’s why it’s critical that you seek cancer care from a team of experts who work together to evaluate your unique case and recommend a comprehensive approach to treatment, considering all of the most advanced therapies available. Even if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer elsewhere, getting a second opinion from the cancer experts at MedStar Health can validate your treatment options or potentially open the door to new treatment options, including those only available in clinical trials. 

The quickly changing landscape of cancer treatment has allowed immunotherapy to be used more broadly in the treatment of many different types of cancers. As we continue to understand the effectiveness of combination treatments and management of immune-related reactions, we anticipate even
more applications for immunotherapy, which will allow us to continue saving lives and improving outcomes for patients fighting cancer.

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