3 Considerations for Cancer Immunotherapy Awareness Month
June is Cancer Immunotherapy Awareness Month, a national campaign to educate the public about cancer immunotherapy. As we recognize this important campaign, we’d like to share some key highlights about this type of cancer treatment.
What is cancer immunotherapy?
Cancer immunotherapy, sometimes called immuno-oncology, uses the body’s natural defenses (the immune system) to identify, attack, and kill cancer cells. The immune system is designed to attack any cell it sees as unhealthy or abnormal.
For some people, immunotherapy can be a vital component of their cancer treatment. Most people who get immunotherapy today have cancers that are advanced or metastatic (stages 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. When deciding if immunotherapy is right for you, be sure to talk with your healthcare team.
Here are 3 ways you can become more familiar with this cancer treatment.
1. Get to know the major types of immunotherapy.
There are 5 major types of cancer immunotherapy. New treatments become available all the time, so this many not be a complete list.
- Checkpoint inhibitors: Checkpoint inhibitors prevent tumors from turning off cancer-fighting cells. In turn, they help the body fight cancer. Checkpoint inhibitors are approved to treat melanoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, Merkel cell and cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma, head and neck cancer, triple negative breast cancer, and several other cancer types.
- Cell therapy: Cell therapy modifies the body’s own immune cells to become a cancer treatment drug. The most common form of this treatment is CAR T cell therapy. It is now approved in certain leukemias and lymphomas. It is also being tested in several other cancer types.
- Cytokines: Cytokines boost the body’s overall immune system. They do not target cancer cells like some newer treatment methods. Rather, they work by speeding up the growth of T cells and activating other immune cells. Cytokines are approved to treat advanced melanomas and kidney cancers.
- Treatment vaccines: Cancer vaccines teach the body’s immune cells to find cancer cells. Currently, there is only one approved cancer vaccine, which treats advanced prostate cancer. It is made from the patient’s own white blood cells. These cells are sent to a lab where their ability to recognize and fight prostate cancer cells is boosted. They are then re-infused into the patient.
- Oncolytic virus therapy: Oncolytic virus therapy uses viruses to fight cancer cells. The one oncolytic virus therapy currently approved in the United States is used to treat specific types of melanoma. Several other viruses are being tested in clinical trials to treat brain, breast, colon, and pancreatic cancer.
2. Understand the side effects of immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy uses the body’s natural defense system, but it can still have side effects. Some immunotherapy side effects may occur right after treatment. Other side effects may not occur until days, weeks, or months after treatment.
Common side effects can include:
- Flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, headache, nausea, cough, loss of appetite)
- Fatigue, rashes, redness, or itching
- Pain or soreness
- Muscle or joint pain
In many cases, the side effects of immunotherapy are not severe. Less often, they can be very severe. Be sure to discuss the potential side effects of immunotherapy with your doctor.
3. Explore our educational and support resources.
The Cancer Support Community provides a variety of free educational and support resources to help you learn about cancer immunotherapy treatments.
- Visit our Cancer Immunotherapy webpage to read more about immunotherapy and whether it’s right for you or your loved one.
- View our CAR T Cell Immunotherapy Guide for specific information about this type of cell therapy treatment.
- Connect with our Cancer Support Helpline by phone or online via our live chat service. Our experienced Helpline staff are here to offer free navigation for cancer patients or their loved ones.
* * *
The Cancer Support Community believes that community is stronger than cancer. We are a relentless ally for anyone who strives to manage the realities of this disruptive disease, so that no one faces cancer alone. Be sure to check our blog section often as we share more news, stories, and inspiration to help support you on your journey.