The challenges of immunotherapy

You may have several questions and concerns about having immunotherapy. There have been media reports of how immunotherapy is a “miracle drug” and how it can cure cancer. Some people, especially with advanced melanoma, have had encouraging outcomes. Because of these factors, people’s expectations can be high when starting treatment.

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Will it work?

The most challenging issue is that checkpoint immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone – only a small number of people respond well to immunotherapy. The percentage is higher for some cancers such as melanoma. To make the benefits of immunotherapy available to more people in the future, researchers are trying to understand why some people respond better than others.

If immunotherapy doesn’t work or stops working, ask your doctors about your other treatment options. You may be able to try another type of immunotherapy drug or join a clinical trial.

How long will it take to work?

As most checkpoint immunotherapy takes a while to work, people and their families may experience anxiety waiting to see whether they’ll respond to the treatment. And if it does work, some people are always wondering how long immunotherapy will control the cancer or whether the cancer will come back.

Let your nurse or doctor know how you’re feeling. They may recommend you see a psychologist to work through your thoughts. For more information on coping with uncertainty, download Cancer Council’s Emotions and Cancer from this page.

How will I know whether the immunotherapy is working?

You will have regular check-ups with your doctor, blood tests and different types of scans to check whether the cancer has responded to treatment.

It may take some time to know whether immunotherapy has worked because some people have a delayed response. Occasionally, people may see their cancer get worse before improving.

A good response from immunotherapy will make the cancer shrink. In some cases, the cancer remains stable, which means it doesn’t increase in size on scans but also does not decrease or disappear. People with stable disease can continue to have a good quality of life.

How much will it cost?

The cost of checkpoint immunotherapy is high. As of June 2017, only treatment for melanoma is reimbursed by the PBS, but reimbursement for kidney and lung cancers is expected soon.

Some immunotherapy drugs may be available through clinical trials or, sometimes, through a compassionate access program.

To access immunotherapy for cancers that are not currently reimbursed, some people choose to make significant financial decisions to cover the costs. Before considering paying for these drugs, ask your doctor for details about the benefits of immunotherapy for your type of cancer.

This information was last reviewed in June 2017
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