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  • Leena Mirchandani


According to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, immunotherapy “refers to treatments that use the body's own immune system to combat diseases.” Immuno-oncology involves immunotherapy directed at cancer. According to Oncolink, immunotherapy can be given intravenously (in the vein, IV), orally (by mouth), subcutaneous (under the skin, SubQ), or intramuscular (into a muscle, IM). They can be given through the body cavity as well. Many types of immunotherapy are FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approved. In addition, many more are being studied through clinical trials. Some patients can be treated by immunotherapy alone and work without the help of other treatments (chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery). The results of immunotherapy may take a few weeks to be seen because tumors may still grow even after the immunotherapy is delivered.

Like many medications and treatments, immunotherapy has its pros and cons. One of the upsides is that the body may respond to immunotherapy even if other treatments, including radiation and chemotherapy, don’t. It can enhance other treatments like chemotherapy to help fight cancer better. Many cancer treatments cause noticeable side effects whereas immunotherapy has fewer side effects. Cancer can be reoccurring and come back after treatment but with immunotherapy, the immune system learns how to fight cancer so people receiving the treatment could stay cancer-free for a longer time.

One of the downsides includes patients possibly experiencing bad reactions to the medication including itching, swelling, or sores. Side effects include fevers, chills, weight gain, heart palpitations, and swelling. This could result in the immune system attacking vital organs including the heart, liver, kidney, lungs, or intestines. Immunotherapy may take longer than other treatments and may not work for everyone. After prolonged use, the body may become accustomed to immunotherapy resulting in it being ineffective.

Immuno-oncology, which is immunotherapy specifically targeting cancer, can prevent, control, and eliminate cancer using the body’s own immune system. Immunotherapy works by either boosting one's immune system to fight disease or changing how the immune system works to find and attack disease (cancer) cells. A function of the immune system is to detect and destroy atypical cells which can prevent the growth of cancers. Sometimes, immune cells are found inside or around the tumors but cancer cells may avoid destruction by the immune cells by having genetic changes that make them less visible, have proteins on their surface that deactivate immune cells, or adjust normal cells neighboring the tumor making them interfere with their response to the cancer cells. Immunotherapy can help the immune system better respond to cancer cells.

There are many immuno-oncology treatments including immune checkpoint inhibitors, T-cell transfer therapy, monoclonal antibodies, treatment vaccines, and immune system modulators. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that block immune checkpoints which keeps their responses from being too strong which allows them to respond more strongly to cancer. T-cell transfer therapy boosts the ability for T-cells to fight cancer. Monoclonal antibodies, immune system proteins, are created in labs to mark cancer cells so they can be seen and destroyed by the immune system. Treatment vaccines boost the immune system to respond to cancer cells. Immune system modulators fight cancer by enhancing the body’s immune response. Thus, immunotherapy is a revolutionary medical breakthrough that can better the lives of many.

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