Immunotherapy for head and neck cancers
Immunotherapy is a type of cancer drug treatment that focuses on using the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Some cancer cells create barriers known as “checkpoints” to block the immune system. Drugs called checkpoint inhibitors help make the cancer cells visible to the body’s own immune system. Once the barrier is removed, the immune system can recognise and destroy the cancer.
Nivolumab is a checkpoint inhibitor used to treat some types of advanced head and neck cancer. Nivolumab is usually administered into a vein (intravenously). Pembrolizumab has also been approved to treat squamous cell carcinomas in the head and neck, but is not yet subsidised on the PBS for head and neck cancers (as of August 2019).
Learn more about:
Listen to our podcast on New Cancer Treatments – Immunotherapy and Targeted Therapy
The side effects of immunotherapy are caused by an overactive immune system attacking the normal parts of the body. Not everyone will experience the same effects. Common side effects include fatigue, skin rash and diarrhoea, but as any part of the body can be attacked by the immune system, other side effects can occur. Early side effects can usually be controlled before they become severe, so let your treatment team know as soon as they appear.
For more on this, see Immunotherapy.
|Other targeted therapy and immunotherapy drugs are being studied in clinical trials. Talk with your doctor about the latest developments and whether you are a suitable candidate. You may also find it useful to listen to our podcast on New Cancer Treatments.|
Video: What is immunotherapy?
A/Prof David Wiesenfeld, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Director, Head and Neck Tumour Stream, The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre at Melbourne Health, VIC; Alan Bradbury, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Senior Clinical and Health Psychologist, John Hunter Hospital, NSW; Dr Madhavi Chilkuri, Radiation Oncologist, Townsville Cancer Centre, The Townsville Hospital, QLD; Jedda Clune, Senior Dietitian (Head and Neck Cancer), Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Dr Fiona Day, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Senior Lecturer, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Dr Ben Dixon, ENT, Head and Neck Surgeon, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; Emma Hair, Senior Social Worker, St George Hospital, NSW; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kara Hutchinson, Head and Neck Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Julia Maclean, Speech Pathologist, St George Hospital, NSW; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Andrea Wong, Physiotherapist, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum
Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment