How immunotherapy is different

How is immunotherapy different from other cancer treatments?

As well as immunotherapy, treatments for cancer include:

Surgery – removes cancer from a specific area of the body. It is common to have some pain after surgery. You’ll be given advice on how to prevent infection during recovery.

Radiotherapy – uses high-energy x-rays to kill or damage cancer cells to target a specific area of the body. This can cause side effects at or near the treatment site.

Chemotherapy – uses drugs to kill or damage rapidly dividing cells anywhere in the body. This means most chemotherapy drugs harm cancer cells as well as healthy cells. This can cause side effects such as nausea, fatigue and hair loss. It can also lower the immune system by reducing white blood cell counts.

Targeted therapy – focuses on proteins or mutations found in some tumours. These drugs attack specific targets inside tumours that are causing the tumour to grow uncontrollably. While it is generally more precise than chemotherapy, targeted therapy can cause significant side effects.

As researchers learn more about cancer, treatment changes. Immunotherapy is not a new idea, but earlier strategies were less effective. Checkpoint immunotherapy is having more positive results.

Like all treatments, checkpoint immunotherapy can cause side effects. Because checkpoint immunotherapy acts on the immune system, it can cause inflammation in any part of your body. This can lead to a variety of side effects such as skin rash, diarrhoea and breathing problems.

Visit Side effects to see what side effects to expect when using checkpoint immunotherapy.

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.

This information was last reviewed in June 2017
View who reviewed this content
View our editorial policy

Support services

Coping with cancer?
Ask a health professional or someone who’s been there, or find a support group or forum

Need legal and financial assistance?
Pro bono legal and financial matters, no interest loans or help with small business

Cancer information

Living with advanced cancer
Coping with cancer that has spread and making treatment decisions

View our publications
Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends