Immunotherapy is a type of cancer drug treatment that focuses on using the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

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How immunotherapy works

Different types of immunotherapy work in several different ways. Immunotherapy can:

  • boost the immune system so it works better against cancer
  • remove barriers to the immune system attacking the cancer.

About the immune system

The immune system protects the body from infections. It’s made up of a network of cells and organs including the tonsils, lymph nodes, appendix, thymus, spleen and bone marrow. When a foreign organism such as a germ enters the body, the immune system recognises and then attacks it, so that it doesn’t harm the body. This process is called an immune response.

White blood cells called lymphocytes are part of the immune system. They are produced in the bone marrow. There are two main types of lymphocytes:

  • B-cells – fight bacteria and viruses by making proteins called antibodies. The antibody locks onto the surface of the invading bacteria or virus.
  • T-cells – help control the immune system, assist B-cells to make antibodies, and may attack abnormal cells.

Cancer and the immune system

The immune system’s ability to detect and destroy abnormal cells usually prevents cancers from developing. However, some cancer cells find ways to stop the immune system destroying them. The natural immune response to cancer cells may not be strong enough to fight them off. Also, cancer cells can change over time (mutate) and then escape from the immune response.

Organs of the immune system

The main organs of the immune system and their functions are shown below.

organs of the immune system

How immunotherapy is given

Checkpoint immunotherapy is usually given directly into a vein (intravenously).

How often and how long you have immunotherapy depends on:

  • the type of cancer and how advanced it is
  • the type of immunotherapy you get
  • how you respond to treatment and the side effects, if any, you experience from treatment.

Sometimes two immunotherapy drugs are given together. You may have treatment every 2–3 weeks in a repeating cycle, with each period of treatment followed by a rest period.

Immunotherapy drugs seem to keep working for varying periods of time, because they act directly on the body’s own immune system. They sometimes keep working even long after treatment stops.

Who may benefit from immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is not yet as widely used as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. However, checkpoint immunotherapy is likely to benefit some people with some types of cancer.

In Australia, it has been used in clinical trials for cancers in the head and neck, bladder, kidney, lung, as well as melanoma, leukaemia and lymphoma. Immunotherapy is being studied for use in many other types of cancer.

To date, most people who’ve had immunotherapy have had advanced cancer. Their cancer has either recurred and spread after primary treatment, or they were first diagnosed at an advanced stage.

Immunotherapy is not right for everyone, so talk to your doctor to find out whether you may benefit from this treatment. Most studies show that immunotherapy is more likely to work for people who have few, if any symptoms from their cancer.

To work out if immunotherapy is suitable, doctors will consider:

  • your overall health
  • the type and stage of cancer
  • your treatment history.

How do you access immunotherapy treatment?

Ask your doctor if immunotherapy is a suitable treatment for you. Only checkpoint immunotherapy for advanced melanoma is currently approved and reimbursed through the PBS in Australia. Immunotherapy for advanced kidney cancer and lung cancer is approved, and will probably be reimbursed in the near future.

For other cancers, it may be possible to access immunotherapy treatments through clinical trials. Speak with your treatment team for more information, and ask if you’re able to join a clinical trial. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or see Clinical trials and research.

Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on Immunotherapy.

Printed copies are available for free - Call 13 11 20 to order

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Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
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To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
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Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

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Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
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Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.

This information was last reviewed in June 2017
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