Managing the side effects of immunotherapy

Because immunotherapy works differently from other cancer treatments, it’s important to work closely with your treatment team to monitor your response.

Before starting immunotherapy, discuss the potential side effects with your cancer specialist. They can give you a Consumer Medicine Information leaflet about the immunotherapy drug that you are having. Ask which side effects to watch out for or report, and who to contact after hours. Throughout treatment, the team will regularly test your blood and ask you questions to check for early signs of side effects.

Because new side effects can appear months after having immunotherapy, ask your cancer specialist how long you need to look out for side effects.

Reporting side effects

Side effects can be better managed if reported early, so it is important to let your cancer care team know about new or worsening symptoms, even if they seem minor or you’re not sure if they are related to your treatment. If left untreated, side effects can become serious and may even be life-threatening.

Because immunotherapy is still a new cancer treatment, general practitioners (GPs) and other health professionals may not yet be familiar with the side effects. Your team may give you a card with information about your immunotherapy treatment and potential side effects. You can give this card to any other health professionals you see and ask them to consult with your cancer specialist.

Do not start any new medicines, including anti-inflammatory steroids, until your cancer specialist has been consulted. If you become unwell, even years later, it is important to tell any health professionals you see that you have had immunotherapy.

Treating side effects

Side effects will be graded on a scale of 1–4 to help decide how to treat them. Moderate to severe side effects (grades 2–4) are often treated with steroid tablets, such as prednisone. In some cases of severe side effects (grades 3–4), people may be hospitalised and/or treated with intravenous steroids or other medicines, and immunotherapy may need to be stopped until the side effects are better controlled.

If side effects become too severe, immunotherapy must be stopped permanently. In this case, the immunotherapy that you have already received may have “trained” the immune system to recognise cancer cells, so you may continue to benefit.

Although there is a risk of severe side effects, it may be reassuring to know that many people experience only mild side effects.

Listen to our podcast on New Cancer Treatments – Immunotherapy and Targeted Therapy

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This information was last reviewed in July 2019
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