13 FAQs About Immunotherapy for Cancer

Immunotherapy drugs have become a standard form of medication for some cancers. Here are thirteen questions to ask your doctor, as well as additional information that can help you have a better understanding of immunotherapy.

  1. What is immunotherapy for cancer?

Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy or biotherapy, is a cancer treatment that stimulates a patient’s immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells.

  1. Is immunotherapy the newest cutting-edge cancer treatment?

Since the late 1800s, doctors have suspected that the immune system can help address certain cancers. However, radiation therapy soon overshadowed the technique, and later, chemotherapy emerged and stole the spotlight from immunotherapy. In the last few decades, as researchers and scientists continued learning about the human immune system, immunotherapy proved to be a beneficial and useful form of cancer treatment.

In recent years, researchers have made significant progress in this field. Newer treatments that show more promise than conventional methods are undergoing further examination. Ultimately, they may improve the outlook for cancer patients.

  1. How effective is immunotherapy for cancer?

In a study by UCLA investigators, using the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab allowed over 15 percent of patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer to live for at least five years. Furthermore, 25 percent of patients whose tumor cells included a specific protein lived at least that long.

  1. What cancers can immunotherapy treat?

The list of cancers that immunotherapy can address is extensive.

Keep in mind that immunotherapy currently does not work for all types of cancer. Doctors and researchers are still developing different kinds of medications and figuring out which cancers they can fight.

  1. Is it safe?

Immunotherapy is safer than chemotherapy and radiation treatments in some cases. But similar to all treatments for malignant disorders, immunotherapy poses some serious risks. Among the most common side effects include skin redness, blistering, and dryness. Flu-like symptoms and fatigue may also occur, as well as severe or even fatal allergic reactions.

  1. Is a clinical trial for immunotherapy different from other cancer treatments?

Many of the medications used in immunotherapy are in the research phase, meaning the United States Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve them. Therefore, to get the medication you need, you may have to join a clinical trial first.

Before a doctor can prescribe a drug, scientists must test it on a set number of volunteers. This process allows researchers to figure out how well a drug or combination of medications works, and who (age, gender, race, general health status) it’s best for. If the medication proves effective during the clinical trial, then the FDA will consider approving it as a treatment for the disorder it was tested on.

  1. Should I join a clinical trial?

Only you and your doctor can decide if joining a clinical trial is right for you. Before you consider enrolling, you’ll want to learn about:

  • The benefits of immunotherapy drugs.
  • Any risks of the medication(s) you are considering.
  • Who will be treating you and if you’re comfortable with them, since you may work with doctors who are not members of your current cancer care team.
  • How long you will need to undergo treatment. Keep in mind that most clinical trials run for a set period of time.
  • The overall cost of treatment and whether your health insurance will cover it.
  • What will happen if the clinical trial you joined stopped, or if you need to stop treatment early.
  1. How is immunotherapy for cancer administered?

Immunotherapy can either be:

  • Topical. The medication is a cream you can rub onto the skin.
  • Oral. The medication comes in a capsule or pill you can swallow.
  • Intravenous (IV). The medication will be put into a vein through an IV.
  • Intravesical. The medication goes directly into the bladder.

Depending on the specific form of immunotherapy, you may need treatment every day, week, or month. There will also be times when you won’t take any medication, which will give your body a break as you prepare for the next cycle.

  1. How long does it take immunotherapy to work?

Immunotherapy may take longer to work compared to other cancer therapies, and it may benefit you more by extending your life rather than curing your cancer. That being the case, ideally, you need to talk to your doctors about everything you should expect from the immunotherapy you’re considering. Have a good understanding of your treatment options before you make your final decision.

  1. What if immunotherapy fails?

Your treatment provider will watch your health closely during treatment. If immunotherapy does not lead to or achieve the results you and your cancer care team were hoping for, your doctors will work fast to find other options. Other treatment choices may include different forms of immunotherapy, or even more traditional cancer treatments like chemotherapy.

  1. Is immunotherapy an option for people who have already undergone traditional cancer treatment?

Yes. Usually, immunotherapy follows after radiation or chemotherapy. In a number of cases, this is because the latter options did not yield good results. For certain forms of difficult-to-treat or advanced malignancies, such as metastatic squamous cell carcinoma, your cancer care team may recommend immunotherapy as your first or early treatment.

Immunotherapy is sometimes paired with conventional cancer treatments, which doctors refer to as combination therapy. If your team recommends this, then your treatment may involve both immunotherapy and chemotherapy, or it could include immunotherapy and a different form of targeted therapy. And, as part of your overall cancer care, your team may also recommend other methods, including surgery or radiation.

  1. Can immunotherapy stop cancer from coming back?

Yes. However, keep in mind that everyone is different. Researchers have found that some forms of immunotherapy can prevent certain cancers (like advanced ovarian cancer) from recurring or coming back longer than other treatments.

Leading medical researchers are also working on immunotherapy vaccines that aim to prevent other forms of malignant diseases, such as breast cancer, from returning.

  1. Where can I get immunotherapy for cancer?

Here at New Hope Medical Center in Mexico, immunotherapy is one of the core methods of our treatment programs. Unlike the United States, Mexico permits more treatment options, including said therapy, which is why we’ve partnered with a medical facility here—to provide people with alternative cancer treatments that work. If you’re interested in immunotherapy for cancer, call us at 480-757-6573 to schedule a consultation with our doctors.

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