The Benefits of Immunotherapy in Fighting Cancer

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Your immune system does more than simply fight colds and flu. Throughout your life, your natural defenses seek out and destroy anything that is not recognized as part of the “self” — including all kinds of germs and cancer cells — before they have a chance to cause disease. Your immune system manages to destroy most rogue cells before they form a full-fledged tumor, but some of them get by your defenses. If you already have cancer, your immune system will still be working hard to keep your disease in check, but it probably can’t do the job on its own.

In recent years, more and more cancer patients have received treatments designed to give the immune system the upper hand against cancer. This approach — called immunotherapy or biological therapy — isn’t as widely used as radiation or chemotherapy. For most types of cancer, immunotherapy hasn’t been shown to be more effective than these standard treatments. And like the others, it can cause its own unpleasant side effects.

But immunotherapy can still be a powerful tool, either on its own or combined with chemotherapy or radiation. For certain patients — including some in the advanced stages of skin cancer or kidney cancer — immunotherapy can offer more than the conventional options, even the possibility of a complete cure. For others, it’s an additional, less toxic method of controlling their disease or reducing side effects from other treatments. In the years to come, as scientists learn more about the immune system, immunotherapy promises to become even more common and more effective.

Is It Safe? What Does It Involve?

Immunotherapy often involves adding more immune cells, immune signaling molecules, or other biochemicals to the body. Unlike chemotherapy, which affects all fast-growing cells, immune treatments target specific processes or types of cells and should have a low impact on healthy tissues. The side effects depend on the particular biological agent used. Some have very mild side effects, while others cause serious problems.

The delivery will also depend on the agent used as well as your treatment plan. Some immunotherapy treatments are in the form of pills or shots you can take at home, while others are delivered intravenously (IV) in the hospital or clinic. Immunotherapy may be administered a couple of times a day or as seldom as every month or two.

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