What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that utilizes the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells. Cancer cells modify the body’s natural immune system, tricking it into recognizing the cancer cell as a normal cell and, as a result, failing to mark it for destruction. Immunotherapy aims to correct this by working on rewiring the body’s immune system defense mechanism. Immunotherapeutic agents are not new to the field of cancer; however, until recently, the use of these agents to treat cancer was confined to those tumor types that were known to be immunogenic in nature (ie, capable of triggering an immune response), including melanoma and renal cell carcinoma. Immunotherapeutic agents were limited to cytokines (substances secreted by immune cells as a form of “communication” with other cells) and the bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine. Since 2010, several new immunotherapies have gained indications across various tumor types, and many other new immunotherapies are in late-stage clinical trials across a wide variety of tumor types.

What is the difference between immunotherapy and chemotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that utilizes the own body’s defense system to slow or stop the growth and spread of cancer cells. Chemotherapy, on the other hand, does not utilize the body’s immune system to work. Instead, chemotherapy is the use of different medications that target cells at various stages of growth and development throughout the body.1,2

How do I know if immunotherapy is an option for the type of cancer that I or my loved one has?

This is a great question that will surely open a valuable dialogue between you and the rest of the members of your healthcare team. Your clinicians are well versed in the specialized care necessary for immunotherapy patients and the ongoing clinical trials evaluating the safety and efficacy of these agents. In the additional reading section, there are resources that may aid you in determining if you are a potential candidate for immunotherapy and ways to initiate this discussion with your healthcare team.3

What are some adverse events associated with the use of immunotherapy?

The adverse events (AEs) associated with immunotherapy differ from the AEs reported with the use of chemotherapy due to the different ways these treatments work in the body. The term used for AEs caused by immunotherapy is “immune-related adverse events,” or irAEs for short. These AEs are immune in nature, meaning they usually stem from an unforeseen malfunction of the immune system. Clinicians and healthcare teams that are specialized in providing immunotherapy treatment are continuously updating their knowledge of how to recognize, treat, and manage irAEs. The parts of the body that may be affected due to irAEs include the gastrointestinal tract, skin, liver, and the endocrine system. These AEs are sometimes predictable, given that they usually occur in a certain time frame after the initiation of immunotherapy.4

What types of advanced cancers currently have FDA approval for immunotherapies?

Currently, the types of cancers that have FDA approval for certain immunotherapies include:

  • Recurrent or metastatic squamous-cell head-and-neck cancer
  • Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Stage III, unresectable, and metastatic melanoma
  • Advanced renal cell cancer
  • Locally advanced or metastatic urothelial carcinoma
  • Non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC), progressive NSCLC, and metastatic NSCLC

If you or one of your loved ones recognizes your cancer type listed above or if you have any questions regarding whether or not immunotherapy is a possible treatment available for you, talk to your healthcare team to discuss current or future immunotherapy options. Of note, the field of cancer is dynamic and constantly changing. The fact that information is continuously being updated emphasizes the importance of an open line of communication among all members of the healthcare team.

Resources and Additional Reading:

  1. American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). “Understanding immunotherapy.” Site updated on 4/2017. Available at; or click here
  2. American Cancer Society. “How chemotherapy drugs work.” Site updated on 2/2016. Available at; or click here
  3. Cancer Support Community. “Is immunotherapy right for you?” Available at; or click here
  4. National Cancer Institute. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Immunotherapy.” Site updated on 5/2017. Available at; or click here

Additional Reading

Frequently Asked Questions