Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that engages your immune system to fight the disease. The treatment is sometimes called biological therapy.
Your immune system is made up of various organs, antibodies (proteins) and immune cells that work together to fight disease and infections. Immune cells include:
Immune cells produce cytokines, protein molecules that act on other cells. Immunotherapy introduces large amounts of these proteins into the body. The treatment:
Immunotherapy treats different types of cancers , including but not limited to
The main types of immunotherapy that healthcare providers use to treat cancer include:
Immunotherapy is performed as infusion. You get an intravenous infusion into a vein at a medical facility.
You may get immunotherapy daily, weekly, monthly or in a cycle. With cyclic immunotherapy, you take a rest period after treatment. The break gives your body time to produce healthy cells. Treatment length depends on:
Unlike chemotherapy, immunotherapy may not always cause tumor shrinkage. Rarely, tumors temporarily swell or get bigger as immune cells attack the cancer even when patients are feeling great. This phenomenon is known as pseudoprogression. The term means that a tumor only appears to be worsening and patients may still be deriving benefit.
You’ll need to see your healthcare provider often to track treatment response. You may have frequent physical exams, blood tests and imaging scans.
Side effects from immunotherapy vary depending on the drug and cancer types. You may experience:
Success rates for any cancer treatment, including immunotherapy, depend on individual factors, including the cancer type and stage. In general, immunotherapy is effective against many cancers. While some cancers are more immunogenic than others, in general, immunotherapy is effective across a wide variety of cancers. Immunotherapy can produce durable responses unlike chemotherapy or radiation, however, these occur only in around 25% patients.
Some research suggests that the immune system may remember cancer cells after immunotherapy ends.
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Immunotherapy holds a lot of promise for treating and curing cancers. The therapy treats a wide range of cancers. Many clinical trials are underway to find new ways to engage the body’s immune system to fight cancer. You may receive immunotherapy as a standalone treatment or along with other cancer treatments. Your healthcare provider can discuss whether immunotherapy is the right treatment for you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/01/2020.