Biotherapy and immunotherapy

Biotherapy involves the use of medicines to stimulate or alter the immune system of the body to recognise cancer cells as being abnormal (foreign).

Immunotherapy involves the use of antibodies and vaccines that have direct effects against cancer cells, thereby stimulating the use of the body's own immune system.

These medicines are given as injections, either into muscles, under the skin, or into veins. Depending on the treatment being used, the treatment may be repeated only a few times at regular intervals, or may be used on an ongoing basis for many months. Patients requiring certain forms of this type of cancer treatment may need to be taught to give themselves injections at home on a daily basis, or a two to three times per week basis (much like diabetics injecting themselves with insulin at home).

Because these medicines affect the functioning of the immune system of the body, the side effects may be fairly severe. Most patients using these medicines will feel as if they have 'flu for the duration of the time in which they receive the treatment. In addition, patients may experience:

  • muscle and joint aches,
  • tiredness,
  • low immunity (seen as an increase in infections such as colds),
  • fevers, and
  • allergic reactions to the medicines.

Your doctor will explain to you exactly what can be expected from each different treatment, and also how to prevent or alleviate many of these side effects.