Immunotherapy: Is It Right for Your Kind of Cancer?

Not all cancers respond to this powerful new treatment.

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One of the newer types of treatment against cancer is known as immunotherapy. It comes in many types, but essentially, immunotherapy is the use of medicines to boost the body’s own immune system to shrink or eliminate cancer cells.

Immunotherapy has a number of advantages. Because it uses your own immune system to target cancer cells effectively, you end up with fewer side effects than chemotherapy or radiation. (Learn more about the difference between immunotherapy and chemotherapy.)

The mechanism of immunotherapy is based on the fact that cancer cells normally trick the immune system. “Oftentimes, cancers work by evading or dodging our immune system, which allows the cells to grow unchecked,” says Rujuta Saksena, MD, oncologist and hematologist in New Jersey. “Immunotherapy is very helpful in detecting the cancer cells and helping the body destroy them.”

The thing is, immunotherapy isn’t right for *every* type of cancer. Some cancer types respond better to immunotherapy than others, and it often depends on the type of immunotherapy.

Checkpoint inhibitors use the immune system’s own checkpoint system to help detect and kill cancer cells. This type of immunotherapy can be effective against:

  • Breast cancer

  • Colon and rectal cancer

  • Head and neck cancer

  • Lung cancer

  • Kidney cancer, specifically renal cell cancer

  • Skin cancer

  • And more.

Monoclonal antibodies are a type of immunotherapy that aid the immune system by marking cancer cells. This functions like a target, so the immune response knows where to attack. This type of immunotherapy can treat many types of cancer, but they have notably been successful against:

  • Breast cancer

  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Immunotherapy vaccines help treat cancer by helping the body recognize antigens associated with cancer that are not present on normal, healthy cells. These vaccines are effective against:

  • Prostate cancer

  • Melanoma

Cytokines are a protein produced by white blood cells that can aid in slowing the growth of cancer cells, but they can also be man-made to help boost the immune system. Cytokines can help treat:

  • Kidney cancer

  • Melanoma

  • Multiple myeloma

  • Bladder cancer

  • Advanced stages of cancers

How do you know if immunotherapy is right for you? “There are certain markers, or biomarkers as we call them, which help oncologists determine whether a certain patient would benefit from immunotherapy, or a different form of anti-cancer therapy, such as targeted therapy or chemotherapy,” says Dr. Saksena.

Get more information on immunotherapy and types of cancer: