This information aims to help you understand more about immunotherapy, a treatment offered to some people with cancer. It focuses on the type of immunotherapy called checkpoint inhibitors.

We hope this information will help you, your family and friends understand what immunotherapy is and how it may help treat cancer.

Learn more about:

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.

What is immunotherapy?

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

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.

Who may benefit from immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is not yet as widely used as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. 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.

Organs of the immune system

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

organs of the immune system

This information was last reviewed in June 2017
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