Immunotherapy – What Is It and How Does It Work?

Immunotherapy is a relatively new cancer treatment being used in private and public health care centers for the treatment of cancerous cells in the body. Although there is historical data showing that certain types of immunotherapy were utilized in the 19th century, it wasn’t until recent trends that have seen it as an effective method of treating tumors. Whether a patient is recommended to have immunotherapy treatment is dependent on the type and spread of the cancerous cells in the individual cases. Immunotherapy is also referred to as a targeted treatment.

What Is Immunotherapy?

Our bodies have a natural defense system known as the “immune system” which typically targets and destroys harmful bacteria and toxins that immunothera[ymake their way into the body. As our immune system is unable to target cancerous cells, immunotherapy is a treatment method that boosts the natural defense systems, allowing our protecting T-cells to seek out and interrupt the cancer cells,  preventing the cells from growing or dividing and eventually causing the death of the harmful cells.

There are currently several different immunotherapy treatments available depending on the individual patient circumstances.

Why Can’t Our Immune System Protect Against Cancer Cells?

Although our immune system is good at protecting our bodies against bacteria, aggressive cancer cells can quickly overwhelm the natural defenses, preventing the immune system from doing its job efficiently. Cancer cells also have the ability to hide from the immune system using internal pathways or release signals that make the immune system ignore the cancer cells.

How Is Immunotherapy Delivered?

Like chemotherapy, immunotherapy is delivered in infusion therapy suites, and utilizes one of four different methods;

  • Intravenously, delivery is made directly into the vein
  • Intravesical, delivery is made into the bladder via catheter
  • Orally, the patient receives a course of tablets or pills
  • Topically, the patient receives a cream which is applied to the skin

Patients will be expected to stay in their treatment suite between a few hours to a full day to receive their immunotherapy and should discuss with their oncology nurse how long their treatment plan is intended to take. Immunotherapy is delivered as an outpatient procedure, so there is no need to spend the night in the hospital.

Does Immunotherapy Have Side Effects?

Immunotherapy is considered a full-body treatment, similar to chemotherapy, in that it spreads around the whole body, catching hiding cancer cells. As such, the side effects can be harder hitting when compared to radiotherapy treatments. While the treatment team won’t be able to guarantee what types of side effects to expect, the most common are expected around the needle site where treatment is delivered, including;

  • Redness
  • Itchiness
  • Soreness
  • Swelling

Side effects to be expected after the individual treatment sessions have finished include;

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Swelling and fluid-retention
  • Congestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Heart palpitations

The treatment team will want to monitor side effects closely to make sure there isn’t anything that needs to be checked and managed further. Advice will be given before the treatment plan begins on what to expect and when to raise concern about a side effect experienced.

Is Immunotherapy Delivered as a Standalone Treatment?

The individual circumstances will denote whether immunotherapy is delivered as a standalone treatment or whether multiple treatment methods will be included in the overall treatment delivery. For example, one patient may receive surgery to remove the tumor, following by immunotherapy to catch any remaining cancer cells. Whereas another patient may not be suitable for surgery but can receive immunotherapy as the sole treatment method.

Where Can Immunotherapy Be Delivered?

The availability of immunotherapy treatment is dependent on where the patient is based, whether it is available from their closest hospital or treatment center and whether it is the right type of treatment for the individual. Patients seeking immunotherapy as a cancer treatment should speak to their oncologist in their local treatment center or one of their nearest private radiotherapy centres if in the UK, who will be able to offer further advice. In the U.S. and other countries there are many immunotherapy centers that can be found easily by searching the Internet.

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