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Immunotherapy for Cancer: Your Questions Answered

Over the past couple decades, immunotherapy has revolutionized cancer treatment and outcomes.

Immunotherapy for Cancer

There are many types of cancer, and for each of them, there are a variety of treatment options.

However, while you may know about surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, you might not have heard about immunotherapy: a newer treatment category that has allowed individuals to achieve long-term remission, and in some cases, become cured.

But is this therapy an option for all cancer patients, and is it safe? To answer those and other key questions about immunotherapy, we spoke with Suresh Nair, MD, Physician in Chief, Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy supports the immune system in recognizing and fighting certain cancers.

“We know that our body has a natural ability to fight cancer, but on its own, it cannot destroy the disease completely,” Nair says. “Our immune system works hard to identify and fight cancerous cells, and immunotherapy boosts it to destroy them more thoroughly.”

Is immunotherapy a new type of cancer treatment?

While the first immunotherapy medication was developed and studied in the 1980s, it wasn’t very effective. It wasn’t until the 2010s that immunotherapy research kicked off, and within three years, three new medications (pembrolizumab, nivolumab and ipilimumab) were being trialed.

“Now these medications and countless others are Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved for the treatment of more than 20 types of cancer,” Nair says. “There is also a lot of research being done on additional medications and their effectiveness for other types and stages of cancer.”

How has immunotherapy revolutionized cancer treatment?

Immunotherapy has been incredibly successful in treating certain late-stage cancers that previously had limited treatment options.

For some patients, immunotherapy treatment allows for longer term remission, which can eventually be considered a cure.

What cancers can be treated with immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is an option for certain types and stages of:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Endometrial cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Liver cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Melanoma
  • Mesothelioma
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Skin cancer
  • Stomach cancer

While this may seem like a comprehensive list, only certain subtypes and stages of these cancers are able to be treated with immunotherapy.

What are the common side effects of immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy treatments can sometimes cause the immune system to attack healthy cells and tissues in the body, leading to certain side effects. These include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Skin rashes
  • Autoimmune conditions

“It’s important to know that each person will experience immunotherapy treatments differently,” Nair says. “The most important thing is communicating any concerns, no matter how small, to your care team.”

When deciding where to receive treatment, it’s often best to find a cancer center with extensive immunotherapy expertise. In addition to having access to the latest treatments, you also will be under the care of clinicians with vast knowledge of the side effects you may experience.

Immunotherapy at Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute

The clinicians at our Cancer Institute have been on the forefront of immunotherapy since the very beginning. In fact, we were one of the first 10 hospitals to offer phase II trials of nivolumab for people with lung cancer and melanoma in the 2010s.

“Since then, we have offered over 50 immunotherapy clinical trials,” Nair says.

In addition to our many clinical trials, we also offer eligible patients many of the latest standard-of-care immunotherapies and expert side effect management.

“We strive to offer our patients the most advanced treatments and best chances of success in their community,” Nair says. “Our expertise with immunotherapy allows us to do just that.”

Immunotherapy excellence

Find out if you are a candidate for the latest immunotherapy treatments and trials.

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