Immunotherapy Side Effects


Who Is Eligible for Immunotherapy?

  • People with cancers that are advanced (metastatic, or stage 4).
  • People with cancers that have returned and spread after initial treatment or were diagnosed in an advanced stage.
  • Researchers are hosting new clinical trials for people with earlier-stage cancers who are at high risk for having their cancers return or spread.
  • Some people cannot receive immunotherapy because of health problems (such as autoimmune disorders) that make it impossible to take these drugs safely.

Ask your health care team if immunotherapy could be helpful for you. Also ask about costs. These are expensive treatments and can be an issue for many patients. Fortunately, many centers have resources to help patients get insurance coverage or access financial programs that can help.

Possible Side Effects

We tend to think of immunotherapy as “natural”—as a stronger version of our body’s own defense system. However, immunotherapy can still have side effects. In many cases, they are minor and may be short-lived or easy to manage. Less often, they are severe and may even be life-threatening. Little is known about whether there are long-term side effects.

The side effects listed here are seen with checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy drugs.

Common side effects:

  • Flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, headache, nausea, cough, loss of appetite)
  • Fatigue (some people get extreme fatigue)
  • Rashes, redness, or itching
  • Pain or soreness
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Drops in blood pressure

Less common side effects:

  • Colitis or other gastrointestinal problems (stomach pain, diarrhea)
  • Thyroid problems
  • Lung problems (cough, shortness of breath)
  • Other serious autoimmune conditions (such as pituitary disorders or diabetes)

Most side effects can be treated early and managed well. Sometimes a side effect will occur several months later. Having one or more side effect does not always mean that you must stop taking drugs that are working for you.

If you are on immunotherapy, it is important to let your health care team know right away if you notice any change in how you feel.

Webinar: Immunotherapy & Side Effects

Are you or a loved one considering or using a checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy and worried about what side effects to watch out for?

Watch the webinar, Frankly Speaking About Cancer: Immunotherapy & Side Effects that took place on Wednesday, November 8, 2017. Two nurse practitioners will share what you should watch for during your checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy treatment. They will discuss possible side effects immediately following treatment, a few days later, and weeks to months later, as well as when to alert your health care team. This webinar will also highlight Cancer Support Community’s Frankly Speaking About Cancer: Immunotherapy resources. The presentation will be followed by a question and answer period with the speakers.

The webinar features the following panelists:

  • Heather DiFilippo, CRNP, Penn Medicine
  • Suzanne McGettigan, CRNP, Penn Medicine

This program is made possible by a charitable grant from Merck.

Watch Now