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Immunotherapy Overview

What is Immunotherapy and How Does It Work?

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Updated October 20, 2005

Immunotherapy is a therapy used in treating cancer. It is often used in conjunction with another treatment, like chemotherapy or radiation. Compared to other treatment options, immunotherapy is still considered new, however has been found to treat cancer effectively when combined with another therapy. It is also used to lessen the symptoms of chemotherapy or radiation.

What Exactly Is Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy stimulates the immune system to help fight cancer. This can be accomplished by using a cancer vaccine, antibody therapy, or non specific immunotherapies.

The body's immune system reacts to antigens. Antigens are anything that causes the immune system to respond, like germs, viruses, and parasites. When an antigen is found, the response of the immune system is to kill the antigen and anything it may be attached to.

The immune system has a hard time distinguishing between normal cells and cancerous cells. At times, cancer cells have an abnormal outer layer, similar to that of an antigen. This prompts the immune system to react.

How Does Immunotherapy Fight Cancer?

Although it is unclear as to how immunotherapy works to fight cancer, researchers believe it stops the growth of cancer cell, or slows down the growth, prevents cancer from spreading, and allows the immune system to be more effective in killing cancer cells.

The FDA Has approved treatment of immunotherapy in the following cancers:

  • Melanoma

  • Leukemias, Lymphomas, and Myelomas

  • Kidney cancer

  • Prostate Cancer

  • Breast Cancer

  • Cervical Cancer

  • Ovarian Cancer

  • Colorectal Cancer

  • Lung Cancer


Immunotherapy can be given in a variety of ways- pill, IV, and injection. How often you receive therapy depends on the type of cancer you have, and what stage it is in.
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