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Cancer Immunotherapy   

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to control the spread and growth of cancerous cells.  This can be done in two ways.  First, a patient’s own immune system may be boosted and second, synthetic immune system equivalents may be introduced.  That is, through medication and other forms of medical treatment, man-made versions of the immune system are used as a substitute for an immune system that is not strong enough to fight off cancer.   

In the first case, immunotherapy is able to help a patient’s immune system work harder in order to adequately respond to present cancer.  In the second, synthetic immune system proteins are introduced in order to reproduce the function of your body’s native immune system.

Preparation for Immunotherapy:  Before you begin any medical treatment, you must first consent to receive it.  This process begins with a conversation between you and your doctor.  Your doctor will tell you about the different forms of immunotherapy available to you that are relevant to the kind of cancer you are being treated for.  There are many different immunotherapeutic drugs and each one is a little different.  The ones that your doctor may recommend will vary depending upon the type of cancer being treated, your current health condition, and your history of cancer treatment.  The process of determining which immunotherapy drug is right for you may take some time. 

Procedure:  Though the procedure of each immunotherapeutic drug may vary, any drug given intravenously (through a vein) will be administered by a health care professional at a hospital, clinic, or treatment center.  All IV drugs require careful preparation and administration, so this is something that only health care professionals who are experienced in administering cancer treatments should do; you will never give yourself a dose of any IV medication.   

You will also be monitored throughout the time you receive an immunotherapeutic treatment.  This is to determine how well the medication is working and how you are responding to the treatment.  Each treatment session may last around 30 minutes, though this time can vary depending on how frequently the dose is being given and how well it is working.  How frequently you will receive a treatment will also vary; your doctor may set up a schedule with a definite end in sight, or begin the treatment cycle again.   

Types of Immunotherapy:  There is more than one kind of immunotherapy used in cancer treatments today.  Active immunotherapy uses medication to stimulate a person’s own immune system in order to promote natural defense against cancer.  A passive immunotherapy treatment uses medication that mimics the activity of a person’s immune system; this is helpful in cases where a person’s immune system is not strong enough to begin defending against cancer on its own.   

If you receive immunotherapy treatment for cancer, you will most likely receive treatments with monoclonal antibodies; this the most common form of current immunotherapy.  Monoclonal antibodies are made in a laboratory and then introduced to your body through the regular cancer treatments you receive.  As the antibodies enter your body, they begin seeking out the cancer cells they have been programmed to look for.   

If you receive treatment with a drug that contains conjugated monoclonal antibodies, those antibodies will deliver a toxin, drug, or radioactive agent to the cancer cells that the antibody has been programmed to seek out.  The antibody will then deliver that toxin or drug to the cancer cell, thus destroying it.  The careful construction of all monoclonal antibodies make it so healthy cells won’t be affected.  For this reason, immunotherapy has some similarities to targeted therapy cancer treatments.   

Recovery Time:   The recovery time required will vary.  Each drug will have different effects and, depending on how long your course of treatment lasts, it may take some time for you to fully recover.   

Immunotherapy  Side Effects: All forms of immunotherapy carry some risk.  Depending on which form of immunotherapy you receive, the side effects you experience may be more or less severe.  Some common side effects include nausea, vomiting, and fever.  Talk to your doctor about your concerns.