Immunotherapy for advanced melanoma
Immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitors use the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Some people who use checkpoint inhibitors have had very encouraging results, but they do not work for everyone with advanced melanoma.
Checkpoint inhibitors used for advanced melanoma include ipilimumab, nivolumab and pembrolizumab. Sometimes more than one drug is used, and different combinations work for different people.
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You will usually have immunotherapy as an outpatient, which means you visit the treatment centre for the day. In most cases, the immunotherapy drugs are given into a vein (intravenously). You may have treatment every 2–6 weeks in a repeating cycle for up to 2 years, but this depends on how the melanoma responds to the drugs and any side effects that you have.
Other immunotherapy treatments are being tested in clinical trials. Talk to your doctor about whether immunotherapy is an option for you.
The side effects of immunotherapy drugs will vary depending on which drugs you are given and can be unpredictable. Immunotherapy can cause inflammation in any of the organs in the body.
This can lead to side effects such as:
- joint pain
- an itchy rash or other skin problems.
The inflammation can lead to more serious side effects in some people, and in rare cases this can be life threatening, but these side effects will be monitored closely and managed quickly.
You may have side effects within days of starting immunotherapy, but more often they occur many weeks or months later. It is important to discuss any side effects with your treatment team as soon as they appear so they can be managed appropriately. When side effects are treated early, they are likely to be less severe and last for a shorter time.
Delaying or stopping treatment for a side effect does not mean immunotherapy will stop working. There are many patients who stopped treatment after only one or a few treatments and whose melanoma remains controlled years later without further treatment.
For more on this, see our general section on Immunotherapy.
It is important to let your doctor know immediately of any side effects from immunotherapy or targeted therapy treatment. If left untreated, some side effects can become serious and even life threatening.
Every three weeks, I’d go to the treatment centre for an immunotherapy infusion. I had very few side effects, I was really lucky. I did get a tiny bit of a rash and I got pretty tired after each infusion, but I’d just go and have a snooze.Ian
Video: What is immunotherapy?
Watch this short video to learn more about targeted and immunotherapy.
Podcast: Immunotherapy and Targeted Therapy
Prof H Peter Soyer, Chair in Dermatology and Director, Dermatology Research Centre, The University of Queensland, Diamantina Institute, and Consultant, Dermatology Department, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; A/Prof Matteo Carlino, Medical Oncologist, Blacktown and Westmead Hospitals, Melanoma Institute Australia and The University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Anne Cust, Deputy Director, The Daffodil Centre, The University of Sydney and Cancer Council NSW, Chair, National Skin Cancer Committee, Cancer Council and faculty member, Melanoma Institute Australia; Prof Diona Damian, Dermatologist, Head of Department, Dermatology, The University of Sydney at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW, and Melanoma Institute Australia; A/Prof Paul Fishburn, General Practitioner – Skin Cancer, Norwest Skin Cancer Clinic, NSW and The University of Queensland; Claire Kelly, National Support Manager, and Emma Zurawel, Telehealth Nurse, Melanoma Patients Australia; Prof John Kelly, Consultant Dermatologist, Victorian Melanoma Service, The Alfred Melbourne and Monash University, VIC; Liz King, Manager, Skin Cancer Prevention Unit, Cancer Council NSW; Lee-Ann Lovegrove, Consumer; Lynda McKinley, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland; Angelica Miller, Melanoma Community Support Nurse, Melanoma Institute Australia incorporating melanomaWA, and Cancer Wellness Centre, WA; Dr Amelia Smit, Research Fellow, Melanoma and Skin Cancer, The Daffodil Centre, The University of Sydney and Cancer Council NSW; Prof Andrew Spillane, Professor of Surgical Oncology, The University of Sydney, The Mater and Royal North Shore Hospitals, NSW, and Melanoma Institute Australia; Kylie Tilley, Consumer; A/Prof Tim Wang, Radiation Oncologist, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre, Westmead Hospital, NSW. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
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