What is immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy can also be referred to as Immuno-Oncology (IO). Some cancer treatments such as immunotherapy use elements of the immune system to help treat cancer. Immunotherapy activates a person’s own immune system to identify and target their cancer. You may have immunotherapy on its own, or in combination with other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. There are different types of immunotherapy. These include monoclonal antibodies, checkpoint inhibitors, vaccines or tumour infecting viruses. Immunotherapy is now a standard treatment for some types of cancer and is currently involved in Clinical Trials for many other types of cancer.
Immunotherapy and our immune system
Our immune system works to protect the body against infection, illness and disease. It can also protect us from the development of cancer. The immune system is able to distinguish between the body’s own cells and foreign cells. The body’s defences normally co-exist with cells that it recognises, but when the immune cells encounter cells or organisms that are foreign they quickly launch an attack. Cancer cells are different from normal cells so the immune system can recognise and kill these abnormal cells. However, in some cases, this does not work because:
Our immune system may not be strong enough to recognise and kill cancer cells
Cancer cells can produce signals that stop the immune system from attacking it
Cancer cells hide or escape from the immune system.
Different types of immunotherapy work in different ways to try and overcome these barriers, boosting the immune systems ability to recognise and kill cancer cells.
Immunotherapy and side effects
Immunotherapy can be an effective treatment for a lot of different types of cancer, however, as with many other cancer treatments, side effects can be experienced whilst on this type of treatment. This can be very different from patient to patient and depends on many factors such as; type of immunotherapy, location, general health and many other factors. Immunotherapy may also cause the immune system to attack healthy cells. This can cause side effects, also called “immune-related Adverse Events (irAE’s).” These may occur at any time during treatment or sometimes even after stopping Immunotherapy.
At The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, we have a team specialised in managing possible side effects of immunotherapy treatment. If it is suspected that you have an immunotherapy related side effect you will be referred to the Immunotherapy Team where your toxicity will be treated and managed by a team of Immunotherapy Specialist Nurses. Side effects tend to be inflammatory in nature and can affect any organ within the body. Some of these side effects can be serious, therefore, early detection and treatment are important.
If you experience any symptoms or have any concerns then you should report these to The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre hotline on 0800 169 5555 who will advise the best course of action.