Unlike chemotherapy, which works to kill cancer cells, immunotherapy helps your immune system fight the disease by either boosting your immune system or making it easy to find and fight the cancer cells.
The good news
This new type of treatment has shown great promise, with President Jimmy Carter’s recovery the most well-known example. Melanoma doesn’t always respond well to radiation and chemotherapy, but some people have seen their skin cancer shrink or disappear with immunotherapy.
It is sometimes combined with other treatments, such as chemotherapy, to boost overall effectiveness. The science behind immunotherapy is still relatively new, and research into this field is ongoing, but many experts see these medications as breakthroughs in cancer treatment.
For example, the Cancer Research Institute indicates that the drug ipilimumab has been found to extend patient survival and that immunotherapy has the potential to be a “more effective, lifesaving cure for skin cancer.”
According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, a number of immunotherapy drugs have been approved by the FDA for melanoma, including:
- Peginterferon alfa-2b
Research trials for these medications, as well as new immunotherapy drugs, continue.
The not-so-good news
Immunotherapy isn’t without side effects and risks. Everyone reacts to treatment differently. The National Cancer Institute lists some of the common side effects, including redness, swelling, and pain at the injection site. You might also have flu-like symptoms including:
- Fever and chills
- Weakness or dizziness
- Nausea or vomiting
- Muscle and joint pain
- Trouble breathing
- Spikes or decreases in blood pressure
There is also the risk that once your immune system kicks into high gear, it will keep going and begin to “attack the cells of healthy organs and tissues, similar to an autoimmune disorder,” according to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. When this happens, immune suppressant medications might be needed to lessen the overreaction of the immune system.
A few recent studies have also found a more serious concern. One study, published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research, found that in eight out of 155 participants who received immunotherapy, tumors grew exponentially, by between 53 and 258 percent.
A separate study published in Clinical Cancer Research in 2016 showed similar results. Researchers found that 9 percent of the participants experienced significant tumor growth after immunotherapy.
Both of these studies were small, but the results indicate a potential problem and deserve further research to determine why this treatment sometimes spurs, rather than shrinks, tumor growth.
Some doctors aren’t concerned with these studies, as has been reported in the media. The takeaway is that it is important to thoroughly discuss immunotherapy with your physician. Make sure to ask about the possible benefits and risks. Ask about all of your treatment options and make an informed decision about your health care.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.