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Immunotherapy for Cancer

Immunotherapy is one of the most cutting-edge forms of cancer therapy.  It is based upon the body’s own immune system, which is what allows a person to fight off infection or disease.  During immunotherapy, a patient’s own immune system may be boosted or may be augmented by man-made immune system equivalents.  Though immunotherapy may be used on its own, it is most frequently used in conjunction with one or more other forms of cancer treatment.   

Immunotherapy treatments are not always indicated and may not be right for your particular cancer.  You should discuss with your doctor the possibility of including immunotherapy as a part of your individualized treatment plan.   

Preparation for Immunotherapy:   Deciding whether or not immunotherapy is the right course of action for you may take some time.  You and your doctor will need to discuss your treatment options to see what form of cancer treatment is going to be best for you.  This is based on several things.  First, it will need to be determined what kind of cancer needs to be treated for and at what stage of development it is currently in.  Your current health condition will need to be evaluated carefully and if you have had previous or concurrent cancer treatments, those will need to be reviewed.  It may take some time before your doctor can recommend an immunotherapeutic treatment to you.  At this point, you must weigh the risks and benefits of that particular treatment before deciding whether or not you would like to proceed.   

Procedure:  There are several types of immunotherapeutic drugs available and each of them has a different dosing and delivery system.  Many medications used in immunotherapy treatments are intravenous and will be injected into a vein.  This is a delicate process that requires precise skill.  The IV solution must first be prepared according to careful parameters.  IV immunotherapy will only be administered by a nurse or doctor; you will never give yourself an intravenous treatment.   

Most intravenous treatments last around 30 minutes, though early treatment sessions may last longer.  Your treatment schedule may include a predetermined number of sessions before it ends, or it may be repeated again later on.  Because immunotherapy is frequently used at the same time as other forms of cancer treatments, you may receive immunotherapy treatments at the same time you are using other medications.   

Types of Immunotherapy or Techniques Used:  There are two forms of immunotherapy: Active and passive.  An active form of immunotherapy stimulates your body’s own ability to fight off cancer.  Passive immunotherapy introduces synthetic (man-made) components of the human immune system in order to fight the disease.  Though active and passive forms of immunotherapy are different from each other, they both operate on the same basic principles.  That is, both active and passive immunotherapeutic drugs rely on biological principles in order to fight disease; for this reason, immunotherapy is also called biological therapy or biotherapy.   

The most widely used form of immunotherapy in contemporary cancer treatment is known as monoclonal antibodies.  Monoclonal antibodies are synthetic and produced in a laboratory, not by a person’s body.  This way, a person’s native immune system is not required to fight the cancer; all the work is taken up by the monoclonal antibodies introduced during the course of treatment.  Once these antibodies are introduced, then a person’s own immune system can begin to fight the cancer, as well.   

A conjugated monoclonal antibody works a little differently.  The antibody is placed together with a drug, toxin, or radioactive agent before being introduced into the body.  The conjugated monoclonal antibody then travels around the body until it attaches to the cancer cell it is marked to recognize.  The toxic agent is then delivered only to the cancer cell; no healthy cell will be affected because the antibody will not recognize it.   

Recovery Time:   Recovery time will vary depending on what kind of immunotherapy you receive. 

Risks and Side Effects of Immunotherapy:   Some of the common side effects of immunotherapy include fever, chills, nausea, and vomiting.  You should talk to your doctor about what side effects you can expect after immunotherapy treatments.