From the blog

Immunotherapy – What Side Effects Can You Expect?

Published: May 22, 2018

As the success of immunotherapy treatments in improving survival and symptom management for cancer patients have started to become known, those suffering from cancer such as mesothelioma and lung cancer may now be given options in terms of the best course of treatment. Immunotherapy works with the body’s own natural defense system by strengthening and bolstering it so that the body can better fight off infection. Since the immune system is often compromised during an illness, common treatments like chemotherapy not only attack cancer cells, but healthy cells associated with cell function and reproduction, leaving the patient in a weakened state.

While immunotherapy may not have the negative side effects associated with chemotherapy, there are some side effects that could occur. This is because immunotherapy aims to stimulate the immune system, but if the immune system is over-activated, it can attack any organ in the body, leaving the patient with side effects pertinent to that organ. These may include:

  • Red itchy skin rash, or itchy bumps
  • Cough or shortness of breath
  • Colitis
  • Inflamed organ can lead to autoimmune-like diseases, and fever

Even though these side effects are unpleasant, they are manageable, reversible, and typically non-life threatening. A simple steroid cream can help alleviate skin irritations, while regular ibuprofen can relieve fevers. However, if the skin irritation persists and extends to other areas of the body, it can disrupt the treatment altogether.

Colitis, or bowel inflammation, is a more severe side effect that could be life-threatening if not treated immediately. Severe bowel changes or diarrhea can result in a loss of fluids and electrolytes and lead to fatigue and dehydration.

Additionally, hormone system side effects tend to be permanent, as glands such as the pituitary, thyroid, and adrenal gland are affected. When those glands are compromised, the patient will need life-long treatment to manage.

Immunotherapy treatments are exciting new opportunities for those suffering from lung cancer and mesothelioma. Successful clinical trials for immunotherapy have shown an overall survival progression while minimizing symptoms and pain from the cancer.



Laurie McGinley, “New Cancer Treatments Have Perplexing Side Effects,” The Washington Post (January 2018). [Link]

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