Immunotherapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer: How It Works

This treatment basically assists the body’s own immune system.

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It can be scary to hear that your lung cancer is starting to spread to other parts of the body. The good news is that today’s treatments are increasingly more effective and precise, and come with fewer side effects. This is the case with immunotherapy for non-small cell lung cancer.

What Is Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy does not work like chemotherapy. Chemo is a treatment that attacks all rapidly dividing cells in the body. This includes cancer cells, but there are many other rapidly dividing cells in the body, such as cells of the hair and the digestive tract. This is why chemotherapy causes so many side effects. (Learn more about how chemotherapy works here.)

Immunotherapy, on the other hand, works by helping your body’s own immune system to identify and attack cancer cells. Because it is more precise in the cells it attacks, immunotherapy usually causes much fewer side effects than chemotherapy.

One of the reasons cancer is so harmful is because it is able to avoid the immune system. The immune system thinks the cancer cells are normal, healthy cells, so it lets them grow and spread unchecked. Immunotherapy treatments basically help the immune system identify those cancer cells. This allows it to target the cancer cells as the threat they are.

Immunotherapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Immunotherapy is an option for patients with stage III or stage IV lung cancer. There are two types of immunotherapy for non-small cell lung cancer:

  • Monoclonal antibodies: These are synthetic proteins made in a lab. They either deliver harmful substances to cancer cells, or flag them for the immune system to attack.
  • Checkpoint inhibitors: These turn off signals on immune cells. Normally, those signals help the cancer cells evade an immune response. By turning off the signals, the immune cells can identify and attack the cancer cells.

If you’re not a candidate for immunotherapy for non-small cell lung cancer, there are other treatments that may help. Find out how chemoradiation can treat advanced non-small cell lung cancer here.