The immune system exists to protect us from cells, organisms, or substances it considers to be foreign. An unrecognized new substance raises an alarm, causing the immune system to attack it. The immune response can lead to destruction of anything considered foreign, including some cancer cells. The immune system’s normal ability to fight cancer is limited, because it may not see the cancer cells as foreign. Even when the immune system recognizes the cancer cells, the response may not be strong enough to destroy the cancer.

Additionally, cancer cells may also give off substances that keep the immune system in check. To overcome this, researchers have designed ways to help the immune system recognize cancer cells and strengthen its response so it will destroy them. This section discusses some of the general features of cancer immunotherapy: 

Types of Immunotherapy

Monoclonal Antibodies
Monoclonal antibodies are lab-created proteins that act like the antibodies produced by the body’s natural immune system. These antibodies have been designed to act against cancer cells in several different ways:

  • Make cancer cells more obvious to the immune system
  • Block the growth factor receptors that enable cancer cells to multiply
  • Carry radioactive particles to cancer cells
  • Carry drugs to cancer cells

Cancer Vaccines
Cancer vaccines start an immune response against certain specific diseases. We usually think of them as being given to healthy people to help prevent infections yet, some vaccines may help prevent or treat cancer. An example is the vaccine against human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes several different types of cancer.

Nonspecific Immunotherapies
These therapies include interferons, interleukins and adjuvants that enhance the immune system’s ability to fight cancer cells or prevent cancer from returning.

If you have early stage bladder cancer, your doctor may order a special form of adjuvant therapy that involves a solution containing a weakened form of the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis (bacillus Calmette-Guérin). This adjuvant solution is placed directly into the bladder via a catheter and remains there for about two hours.
What to Expect From Immunotherapy
Most immunotherapy treatments are given through an injection, usually in your doctor’s office or in the hospital.

Side Effects of Immunotherapy
Depending on the type of immunotherapy you receive, you may experience one or more side effects:

  • A rash where the therapy was injected
  • Flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, weakness and nausea
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Breathing problems

After Immunotherapy
As with any cancer treatment, it is important to pay close attention to the instructions from your doctor and know which warning signs to watch out for in the days and months following your immunotherapy.

Every person and every cancer is unique. This section provides some general information about treating cancer with immunotherapy. You may find it helpful to look at additional information about treating your specific type of cancer. Immunotherapy drugs are now used to treat or prevent a number of cancers:

  • Bladder
  • Brain
  • Breast
  • Cervical
  • Colon
  • Kidney
  • Lung
  • Leukemia
  • Lymphoma
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Melanoma
  • Prostate

Our continued commitment to research enables us to improve present and future cancer care. Learn about our current cancer-related clinical trials.