Immunotherapy Side Effects

Is Immunotherapy Right for Me?

Most people who get immunotherapy today have cancers that are advanced or metastatic (stage 3 and 4). Their cancers have either returned and spread after initial treatment or were diagnosed in an advanced stage. Some immunotherapy drugs are now approved to treat certain early-stage cancers. Researchers are testing immunotherapy in new cancer types and at earlier stages. Some people cannot receive immunotherapy because of serious health problems (like autoimmune disorders) that make it unsafe to take these drugs. Ask your health care team if immunotherapy is right for you.

Possible Side Effects

We tend to think of immunotherapy as “natural”—as our body’s own defense system. However, immunotherapy can still have side effects. These effects are generally different from those caused by chemotherapy or radiation therapy. In many cases, they are not severe and may be short-lived or easy to manage. Less often, side effects can be very severe and even life-threatening.

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
  • Infections

Less common side effects:

  • Colitis or other gastrointestinal problems (stomach pain, diarrhea)
  • Problems with the thyroid, liver, kidneys, heart, or other glands or organs
  • Lung problems (cough, shortness of breath)
  • Other serious autoimmune conditions (such as pituitary disorders or diabetes)

Sometimes the side effects do not occur right after treatment is given. They may show up several months later. Little is known at this time about whether there are any long-term side effects. If you are on immunotherapy, it is important to let your health care team know immediately if you notice any change in side effects or symptoms. Most side effects can be managed if they are treated early.

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.

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