What is immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy is a treatment that basically allows your body's immune system to fight cancer. The problem with many cancers is that they are covered by a protein, which acts like a camouflage, so your body's immune system can't detect the presence of cancer. What the immunotherapies typically do is strip this camouflage off so that your body's immune system then can attack the foreign cancer that shouldn't be there.
We use immunotherapy either by itself for certain situations, in conjunction with chemotherapy for other situations and in conjunction with radiation for yet other situations. For example, in lung cancer patients, we'll often give chemotherapy and immunotherapy concurrently. Also, in lung cancer, we'll give radiation and immunotherapy concurrently. Both the chemotherapy and radiation therapy can augment the effects of immunotherapy, so they're really one plus one equals three or four rather than two.
Immunotherapy can last for varying lengths of time. Oftentimes, one of the benefits of immunotherapy that we see is that people will receive the therapy for a fixed period of time, say a year, and will get benefits lasting three, four, five years or more, not unlike polio vaccine or a pneumonia vaccine that you might get that augments your body's immune system for a prolonged period of time. One of the advantages of immunotherapies is that they can provide ongoing protection from the cancer for an extended period of time.
The benefits of immunotherapy compared to traditional forms of therapy like chemotherapy include a prolonged period of action. The effectiveness of immunotherapy can last for many months or even years in patients. It typically is less toxic, has fewer side effects than chemotherapy or radiation therapy and it can also prevent spread of an existing tumor to other parts of the body.
The side effects of immunotherapy are several. The most predominant side effect is fatigue. It's not the kind of fatigue that prohibits you from doing your normal daily activities, but if your normal energy level is at 10, for example, most people function at an energy level of eight and a half or nine, so a little decrement in your energy. Other side effects that are less common include diarrhea, skin rash, low thyroid function, and there are a number of other very, very rare side effects that we monitor for by blood test periodical