- Cancer Information
- Cancer treatment
- How is immunotherapy different from other cancer treatments?
How is immunotherapy different from other cancer treatments?
Immunotherapy works in a different way to other cancer treatments and has different side effects. Other treatments for cancer include:
Surgery – removes cancer from a specific area of the body. This can be effective if the cancer is found before it has spread to other parts of the body. However, surgery on its own is rarely able to treat cancer that has spread. The main side effects of surgery are pain and risk of infection.
Radiation therapy – uses targeted radiation (usually x-ray beams) to kill or damage cancer cells so they cannot grow, multiply or spread. The treatment focuses on a specific area at a time and is most effective when the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body. It can also be used to treat symptoms such as pain. Radiation therapy can cause fatigue, as well as side effects at or near the treatment site (e.g. skin problems, nausea, bowel problems).
Chemotherapy – uses drugs to kill or damage rapidly dividing cells anywhere in the body. It can work for many types of cancer because cancer cells divide rapidly. Chemotherapy also damages healthy cells that divide rapidly, such as hair follicles, blood cells and cells inside the mouth and bowel. This can cause a range of side effects, such as nausea, fatigue, hair loss, and low white blood cell counts (making you more prone to infections). Unlike cancer cells, normal cells can recover, so most side effects are temporary.
Targeted therapy – uses drugs to attack specific features of cancer cells, known as molecular targets, that are causing the tumour to grow uncontrollably. While targeted therapy is designed to affect only the cancer cells, it can still cause side effects in some people.
As researchers learn more about cancer, treatments change. Immunotherapy is not a new idea, but older types were less effective. Checkpoint immunotherapy is having better results in some cancers.
Like all treatments, checkpoint immunotherapy sometimes causes side effects. The extra activity of the immune system can cause inflammation anywhere in the body, leading to a variety of possible side effects, such as skin rash, diarrhoea and breathing problems. Learn more about managing the side effects of immunotherapy.
Listen to our podcast on New Cancer Treatments – Immunotherapy and Targeted Therapy
A/Prof Brett Hughes, Senior Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital and The Prince Charles Hospital, and Associate Professor, The University of Queensland, QLD; Dawn Bedwell, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Tamara Dawson, Consumer; A/Prof Craig Gedye, Senior Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Associate Professor, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle, NSW; A/Prof Alexander Menzies, Medical Oncologist, Associate Professor of Melanoma Medical Oncology, and Faculty Member, Melanoma Institute Australia, The University of Sydney, Royal North Shore Hospital and Mater Hospital, NSW; Dr Donna Milne, Nurse Consultant Melanoma and Skin Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Geoffrey Peters, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Canberra Hospital and Health Services, and Clinical Lecturer, Australian National University, ACT.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.