What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that essentially helps your immune system fight cancer. The concept of immunotherapy is based on the body's natural defence system, which helps protectus against a variety of diseases.

Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy that uses substances made from living organisms which harness or mimic the body’s immune system, to fight cancer cells.

Understanding immunotherapy

Since immunotherapy works with your body’s natural defence system, it is worth understanding the immune system. The immune system is made up of white blood cells and organs and tissues of the lymph system. Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses certain parts of your immune system to fight diseases such as cancer. Although we are less aware of it, the immune system also works to aid our recovery from many illnesses, and there is evidence that in many cancer patients the immune system slows down the growth and spread of tumours.

This can be done in a variety of ways:

  • By stimulating the body’s own immune system to work harder or smarter to attack cancer cells
  • By enhancing your immune system with man-made immune system proteins

By doing this, immunotherapy works by slowing the growth of cancer cells and stopping the spreading of cancer to other parts of the body. Immunotherapy works better for some types of cancer than for others. It's used by itself for some of these cancers, but for others, it seems to work better when used with other types of treatment.

There are several types of immunotherapy, including:
  • Monoclonal antibodies and tumour-agnostic therapies
  • Non-specific immunotherapies
  • Oncolytic virus therapy
  • T-cell therapy
  • Cancer vaccines

In the last few decades, immunotherapy has become an important part of treating some types of cancer. Newer types of immune treatments are now being studied, and they will impact how we treat cancer in the future.

How is immunotherapy administered?

You may receive immunotherapy in your oncologist's office, or in an outpatient unit at a hospital. Depending on the type of immunotherapy chosen, it may be administered in different ways, including:

  • Intravenously (IV) in the form of direct injections or an infusion
  • Orally in the form of tablets.
  • Topically through a cream or ointment.
  • Intravesically directly into the bladder.

How often and for how long you receive immunotherapy depends on the type of cancer, its stage, the type of immunotherapy and the reaction to treatment. Your oncologist will explain your treatment plan to you. You may have treatment every day, week, or month. Some types of immunotherapy are given in cycles in which treatment is followed by a rest period to allow the body time to respond and rebuild new, healthy cells. Your blood tests and scans will show whether there are changes in the size of your tumour. Based on those results, treatment may be altered.

Side effects of immunotherapy

Immunotherapy can cause side-effects when it becomes so active it starts to attack the healthy cells within the body. The aim of the following information is to give you an idea of what side effects may be a result of a highly active immune system.

1Skin reactions
You may have skin reactions at the needle site, such as:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Soreness
  • Redness
  • Itchiness
  • Rash

There are creams and lotions that can help treat these so please discuss this with our devoted nursing staff.
2Flu-like symptoms
Fever, chills, weakness, fatigue, headaches, difficulty breathing, dizziness, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting are all common side-effects of an over-active immune system. In some cases, heart palpitations and sinus congestion may also be experienced.
3Organ inflammation
One type of immunotherapy, called immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy, can trigger inflammation of the organs, which may lead to the following complications:

  • Bleeding problems, anaemia, and neutropenia.
  • Vision changes and/or eye pain.
  • Lowered blood pressure.
  • Decreased urine production due to kidney inflammation.
  • Hepatitis, jaundice, nausea or vomiting, stomach pain and fatigue.
  • Tingling in the hands, feet or face.
  • Encephalitis, high fever, confusion, hallucinations, seizures and vomiting.
Be sure to drink clear fluids (soup, soft drinks, tea and about two litres of water per day) to prevent your body from dehydrating. Eat a lot of bananas, cooked carrots, grated apple (without the skin) and Maizena porridge. If you would like more information, please talk to the nursing staff or dietician to assist you with this.

You must consult your general practitioner or oncologist immediately should you have more than four loose stools per day.


1How often do you need immunotherapy?
Depending on the individual's unique situation and the type of immunotherapy they are getting, immunotherapy treatments may vary from person to person. Treatment often takes place every two, three, four or six weeks. Immunotherapy are given in cycles with a period of treatment followed by a period of rest to give your body time to recover and mount a response. Your treatment team at ABJ will more accurately estimate the number of treatments you require.
2How long does a typical immunotherapy treatment last?
Patients may need to spend a few hours in the treatment facility while receiving these infusions, typically administered in an outpatient setting.
3How long is the immunotherapy recovery period?
The particular drug being used and the patient's reaction to treatment can impact the side effects and length of the recovery period. The doctor or ABJ nursing staff will give you a more comprehensive understanding of your individual recovery period.