So you’ve been told your cancer will be treated with chemotherapy. What does that mean exactly? Are the side-effects as bad as you’ve heard? How effective is it? Why not another type of treatment? What about immunotherapy? These are important questions you should ask your doctor, but, to give you a head-start, here is some basic information on these two common types of cancer treatment: Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy.
The use of drugs or medicines to treat cancer is chemotherapy. Unlike surgery or radiation therapy treatments where cancer is removed, killed, or damaged in a particular area, chemo works throughout the whole body and can be used to kill cancer cells that have metastasized to other parts of the body. Chemotherapy may be used to cure cancer, control cancer, or for palliation.
Common side-effects resulting from chemotherapy include fatigue, hair loss, easy bruising and bleeding, anemia, infection, appetite changes, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, problems of the mouth, tongue, and throat (such as pain swallowing and sores), nail and skin changes, bladder and urine changes, kidney problems, weight changes, mood changes, fertility problems, and changes in sexual function and libido. It is important to remember that the fact that all these side-effects exists does not mean that you will experience them. You may only have a few or potentially none at all. Chemotherapy treatment affects each person differently.
Using the body’s immune system to fight cancer is referred to as immunotherapy. This can be done in one of two ways:
- By stimulating your immune system to attack cancer cells or generally work harder.
- By giving you immune system components, like man-made proteins.
Immunotherapy works better for certain types of cancer over others. It is sometimes used as the only treatment and other times in conjunction with other treatments. Immunotherapy may be given intravenously (IV), orally, topically, or intravesically (directly into the bladder). The main forms of immunotherapy being used to treat cancer right now are:
- Monoclonal antibodies – man-made proteins that can be designed to attack specific parts of cancer cells.
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors – drugs that help the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells.
- Cancer vaccines – substances introduced into the body to initiate an immune response.
- Non-specific immunotherapies – These generally boost the immune system, which can help it attack cancer cells.
The side-effects you may experience with immunotherapy treatment depend on the type of immunotherapy you receive, but, generally, the possible side-effects include skin reactions at the needle site, flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, weakness, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, joint or muscle aches, breathing trouble, headache, high or low blood pressure), weight gain from retaining fluid, swelling, sinus congestion, heart palpitations, and risk of infection.