Immunotherapy Side Effects and How to Manage Them

Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, is a form of cancer treatment that enhances the immune system — your body’s natural defense mechanism — to fight cancer. It uses substances that either the body creates or scientists concoct in a laboratory to boost or restore immune system function.

Depending on the type of cancer you have, an oncologist may recommend immunotherapy as your only treatment. It may also be administered after or at the same time as more conventional treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery.

Realizing the Side Effects of Immunotherapy for Cancer

For years, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has acknowledged the promising effects of immunotherapy, evident in their annual Clinical Cancer Advances reports. Immunotherapy exhibited many successes in treating different cancers, including the colon. Though the treatment is revolutionary, we still need to be aware of the risks of rebooting the immune system.

Immune checkpoints are proteins that function like “stoppers” or “breaks” on the immune system. A form of immunotherapy called immune checkpoint inhibitors targets these proteins specifically. Blocking the immune checkpoints removes the breaks from the immune system, which then allows it to detect and attack cancer cells. Learn more about how immunotherapy works.

In recent years, more people with grim cancer diagnoses became free of disease following treatment with immunotherapy. These true-to-life stories offer hope to cancer patients. This treatment method, however, is considerably new, and the cancer community is still learning about its effects on the body. For instance, an unfettered immune system may begin attacking healthy cells and functioning parts of the body, causing side effects that may be life-threatening if not treated early.

Realizing the consequences, which are present in any cancer treatment, the ASCO and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) collaborated to create guidelines for cancer patients, caregivers, clinicians, and oncologists. The guidelines allow patients and members of the medical community to recognize, analyze, and manage the potential side effects of immune checkpoint inhibitors.

Common Immunotherapy Side Effects

Among the most common side effects of immunotherapy for cancer include:

  • Skin reactions. Redness, dryness, and blistering of the skin are common reactions to immunotherapy. The skin on your fingers may crack, and your skin in general may become sensitive to sunlight. Excessive scratching can also break the skin and make it more prone to infections. Inflammation around the nails can make showering, dressing, and other activities difficult or even painful.
  • Flu-like symptoms. Fevers, chills, weakness, fatigue, body aches, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and high or low blood pressure are all side effects you may experience during treatment with immunotherapy.

These symptoms are especially prevalent in non-specific immunotherapy and oncolytic virus therapy. You can familiarize yourself with the many different types of immunotherapy here.

It is crucial to stay hydrated when experiencing these side effects. Seek medical assistance if you are struggling to keep liquids down and ask your physician about the ways to manage the side effects of immunotherapy. Some will go away after completing treatment, but others can be serious and require attention right away.

Other side effects you may experience include:

  • Muscle aches
  • Swelling of legs (edema)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sinus congestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • A persistent cough
  • Weight gain from retaining fluid
  • Changes in hormones, including hypothyroidism, which develops when the thyroid gland does not generate enough thyroid hormones, causing fatigue and weight gain

Keep in mind that side effects not listed here can also occur. Before you proceed with immunotherapy, ask your doctor about all the potential side effects you may experience, as well as how they can help manage them.

Why Immunotherapy Causes Side Effects

Certain forms of immunotherapy attack cancer and slow down its metastasis to other areas of the body. Others make it easier for the body’s immune system to destroy and eliminate cancer cells. During these processes, immunotherapy can sometimes result in the immune system attacking healthy cells, which can cause side effects.

Managing Side Effects

Your cancer care team can help you prevent or manage many side effects. This is referred to as palliative care or supportive care, which is an essential component of cancer treatment. Let your healthcare team know about any new or worsening symptoms as soon as possible, even if they do not seem serious or related to immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy can cause mild, moderate, or severe side effects. Depending on the degree of your symptoms, your team may pause the treatment, prescribe a medication called a corticosteroid, or change your treatment. If your symptoms do not improve or if they worsen even with palliative care, then your doctors may stop immunotherapy.

What to Do in Case You Need Immediate Medical Assistance

If you need medical care at an emergency room or hospital not familiar with your cancer treatment, ensure to tell them there that you are receiving immunotherapy. If possible, disclose the name of the specific drug(s) you are taking, your oncologist, and the treatment center where you receive immunotherapy. Writing this information on paper and storing it in your wallet can be helpful when you need it quickly. Talk to your doctors about which details of your treatment you should always carry with you.

Follow-Up Care

Seeking care for side effects after the completion of your treatment is important. Most side effects will go away when immunotherapy ends, but some effects can last a while longer after the treatment period. Other effects, however, may remain months or years later. Your healthcare team can help you manage any long-term side effects to improve your quality of life.

The Bottom Line

As there are many types of immunotherapy, they can cause different side effects, too. Many side effects depend on the specific treatment, the type of cancer, the location of a tumor, and a patient’s general health. Therefore, before you consider immunotherapy, learn everything you can about the possible side effects of your prospective treatment. Also, ensure your cancer treatment provider is well-versed in palliative care in case you experience side effects.

The safest, most effective way to target cancer using this breakthrough approach is to choose a cancer care team accomplished and experienced in providing immunotherapy treatments. Fortunately, the health specialists here at New Hope Unlimited specialize in an extensive selection of alternative cancer treatments, including immunotherapy for cancer. Contact us today to schedule your consultation. Our patients do not settle for survivorship—they thrive.

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