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Immunotherapy

Cancer immunotherapy is a type of treatment that helps the immune system fight cancer.


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Immunotherapy is different from chemotherapy.

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment.  It can boost or change how the immune system fights cancer cells. There are different types of immunotherapy. The most common type is checkpoint inhibitors.

Checkpoints are proteins that stop the immune system from killing cancer cells. Checkpoint inhibitor are drugs that block these proteins. This allows the immune system to attack and kill the cancer cells. *

How does immunotherapy work?

Immunotherapy drugs boost the body's T-cells, a type of white blood cell. T-cells fight diseases, infections, and viruses. They can kill cancer cells.

Immunotherapy can:

  • improve your symptoms
  • delay or prevent new symptoms
  • help you live longer.

Immunotherapy does not harm healthy cells. Chemotherapy drugs will often damage or kill healthy cells.

It can take many treatments before your doctor can tell if immunotherapy is working. Your cancer may get worse before it gets better. The length of your treatment depends on your type of cancer and the side effects you may have. You continue treatment as long as it is helping and you can handle any side effects. 

* Canadian Cancer Society, n.d. Glossary – Checkpoint Inhibitor: https://cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/resources/glossary/c/checkpoint-inhibitor-glossary

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If you have any questions about preparing for your treatment, please talk to your health care team.

Other considerations

Preventing pregnancy during treatment

Immunotherapy may cause damage to a fetus (unborn baby) or sperm. If you or your partner can become pregnant, it is important to use effective birth control when having vaginal sex, during and sometimes after treatments end. Some hormonal birth control (such as the birth control pill, patch or injection) may not work during this treatment.

Talk to your health care team about which birth control is best for you and your partner.  

The length of time you need to use birth control after treatment ends depends on the drug you get. Tell your doctor or health care team right away if you or your partner becomes pregnant.                                                         

For more about preventing pregnancy during cancer treatment: *link to Preventing Pregnancy during Cancer Treatment handout here.

Prepare

During Treatment

Usually, you get immunotherapy through an IV (intravenous) into a vein. You may have treatment once every two, three, four or six weeks, depending on your treatment plan. These weeks of receiving the drug is a "cycle". The cycle repeats. The number of cycles you have depends on your treatment plan.

You may have blood tests before each treatment cycle. You may have other tests, such as scans of your body, during your treatment.  Sometimes your health care team will pause your treatment paused because of side effects or your test results.  

Immunizations

When you are having immunotherapy, some immunizations have risks. Talk to your cancer care team before receiving immunizations. 

Side Effects

Immunotherapy cause autoimmune and inflammatory side effects. These can affect many parts of your body.

It is very important to report side effects to your doctor right away. Do not manage side effects on your own without speaking to your doctor. Many side effects are due to inflammation (swelling). Patients often need corticosteroids to treat inflammation.

Sometimes, side effects take a long time to develop. They can start even after your treatment has ended.

Common side effects

  • Diarrhea (loose or watery poop)
  • Itching
  • Rash
  • Joint Pain
  • Feeling fatigued (tired)
  • Feeling less hungry
  • Feeling nauseous (queasy)
  • Fever

Do not treat or diagnose symptoms yourself. Get medical treatment right away. This may keep the problem from getting worse.

Other health care providers

If other health care providers are involved in your care, tell them you are on immunotherapy treatments. Tell them about the side effects you may get. Always have your BC Cancer Immunotherapy wallet card (PDF).

Show the card to your doctors, dentists and health care providers.

Link to patient letter (PDF)

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