General cancer information


General cancer information

Immunotherapy star_border Save this page

Immunotherapy works by helping the body’s immune system fight the cancer.

Not all cancers can be treated with immunotherapy.

What you need to know

How does immunotherapy work?

Immunotherapy works by helping the body’s immune system fight the cancer. The immune system is the body's defence system, which protects the body against infections and some diseases.

Different immunotherapy drugs work in different ways, including:

  • making it easier for the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells
  • stimulating the immune system to be more active
  • removing the natural brakes on the immune system, and increasing its ability to fight the cancer.

Will immunotherapy work for me?

Immunotherapy works for some people with some cancers. It can be difficult for doctors to predict which people immunotherapy will work for.

In Australia, immunotherapy drugs have only been approved for use in certain types of cancer.

Speak to your doctor about whether immunotherapy is an option for you.

What to ask or talk about

Side effects of immunotherapy

When immunotherapy is given intravenously - in a drip, it is possible to have skin reactions where the needle was, including:

  • pain or soreness
  • swelling
  • redness
  • itchiness
  • rash.

Immunotherapy affects the body's immune system and can cause the following side effects:

  • fatigue
  • dry itchy skin or rash
  • diarrhoea, with abdominal pain and possible blood in your bowel motion
  • shortness of breath and cough
  • nausea and vomiting
  • dry irritated eyes
  • mouth sores
  • pain in the joints
  • peripheral neuropathy
  • headache
  • changed vision – blurred or loss of vision
  • changes in weight
  • severe abdominal pain
  • yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • dark urine
  • changes in the amount of times you pass urine
  • swelling of hands and feet
  • dizziness with low blood pressure
  • confusion.
Side effects from immunotherapy can become serious quickly. Ask your doctor or nurse what side effects to look out for, and when you should get help. 

checklist Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Next steps

Preparing for immunotherapy

Before immunotherapy, you may need to sign a consent form. It is important you understand what you are consenting to. This includes what immunotherapy you will be having, how often you will have it, and the possible side effects.

It is important to talk to your doctor or nurse about the possible side effects of immunotherapy and what to do if you notice any of these. You need to know who to contact and on what phone number, including night or weekends.

The side effects of immunotherapy can be very serious if they are not treated quickly. It is easier to manage side effects that are treated early.

Side effects can occur days after starting treatment and later during treatment. It is also possible to get side effects after treatment has finished.

Know what to do and who to contact if you have side effects or become unwell.

Some side effects need urgent management.

checklist Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Where to get help

There are people you can talk to for more information or support.

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