Cancer, considered as one of the most dreaded among diseases has a high burden on healthcare costs. With about 5.5 percent of the US population stricken with the condition, the effect is telling and significantly impacts the health system. Various treatment regimens are in place to support, treat and manage patients with different types and stages of cancer. A relatively recent method of treatment is immunotherapy, also known as immune oncology. While the suitability of the treatment for cancer patients is not high, it has been known to be relatively effective with close to 20% of patients responding to the treatment. However, like all other treatment options, there are possible side effects of immunotherapy and following subsections offer information about the therapy including possible outcomes.

Overview of immunotherapy

The therapy is one of the many types of treatment for cancer, and relies on the immune system of the body for the outcomes. The therapy is intended to prevent, to treat and to control cancer. The therapy works by getting the immune system to target the identified cancer cells, and to boost the immune cells in the fight against cancer. The therapy is also intended to give the body the necessary actions that will improve the immune response. The therapy is presently available in different types, such as targeted antibodies treatment, vaccines against cancer, and other checkpoint inhibitors.  The biotherapy also includes adoptive cell transfer, and cytokines apart from adjuvants. It is referred to as biotherapy as it involves the triggering or facilitating of a biological response to the cancer.

It essentially relies on living organisms in the body to combat the condition. Other types of the treatment also involve genetic engineering to improve the cancer fighting abilities of the immune cells. In most instances, the therapy is a part of holistic approach to treatment, and is usually combined with surgery or other treatment options such as chemotherapy or radiation. As the immune system is known to be effective in identifying and combating diseased cells, while leaving healthy cells intact, the treatment relies on improving or boosting this system to fight cancer.

In addition to the routine actions of the immune system, it is also known to be highly adaptive in nature, wherein the system identifies the changes and modifies the response to target the changes in the disease. Immune systems are known to have a memory that helps the system to identify cancer cells specifically and prevent relapse.

The therapy and the recorded benefits/advantages

Essentially, the immune system comprises white blood cells, in addition to the lymph system and immunotherapy is designed to make the system work more effectively, thereby targeting cancer cells with greater speed and precision.  One of the reasons for the increasing use of the therapy for patients is the fact that it is known to offer hope when other treatments have failed. For instance, the therapy is known to be highly effective for treating skin cancer which is known to respond poorly to radiation or chemotherapy. Another reason for the use of immunotherapy is the force multiplier effect on other treatment options when used as a part of combined treatments. Advantages of the therapy include the relatively lesser side effects from the treatment when compared with other options. This is primarily because the therapy targets only the cancerous cells, leaving the healthy cells untouched. As the system remembers the cancer cells, the likelihood of relapse is lesser as the system immediately identifies and targets the cancer cells.

Possible side effects of immunotherapy

Side effects of medication are common to all treatments. The type of effects may differ from person to person and depend on various factors, such as the age of the patient, the gender, the overall health, the dose of the medication, the frequency or schedule of medication, other medical conditions and medications in use. The effects may be either mild or moderate or could be serious and adverse. The mild or moderate effects are known to be relatively common in occurrence, while the serious effects may be rare in occurrence. The mild or moderate effects may not usually require any medical intervention and may resolve naturally. The conditions are also known to be experienced in the initial period of commencing a treatment.

The serious or adverse effects may require medical intervention, depending on the condition and the persistent nature of effects. It is also important to bear in mind that effects may not necessarily be experienced by all patients. Some patients may not experience any kind of side effects at all, and it is therefore wrong to assume that all patients will experience some kind of undesirable effects from drugs.

The possibility of undesirable effects of the therapy exists, in addition to the suitability of the therapy for a section of cancer patients only. The undesirable effects are generally manageable in nature, and when compared with the disease and the outcomes of cancer, the undesirable outcomes of immunotherapy are considered as less dangerous. Studies are ongoing to benefit more patients, in addition to reduce the impact of unwanted effects.

Routinely reported effects include unexpected reactions to the therapy. In addition to this, as the immune system is boosted, certain actions or sequence of actions may be experienced by the patient. For instance, whenever the body’s immune system fights off an infection or a disease, there is a likelihood of certain conditions manifesting. This could be symptoms that are similar to that of the flu, or it could be low or high-grade fever, while other symptoms include extreme tiredness and vigours.

Fatigue is one the common effect of immunotherapy

Among the most commonly reported and experienced side effects, fatigue causes the individual to experience unusual symptoms. For instance, an individual who experiences tiredness may usually find relief after rest, however, with fatigue from the side effects of immunotherapy, the outcome is different. The patient may not experience any relief and the best option is to restrict the rest periods during the day to about an hour. Another way to beat the tiredness is to try dietary modifications and begin working out to build strength and endurance. The patient is also advised to consume adequate water to maintain proper hydration.

Symptoms similar to flu from immunotherapy

Another commonly reported outcome from the therapy is the experiencing of symptoms that are similar to flu. Typical symptoms include throbbing headache, pain the muscles or the joints, overall feeling of tiredness and possible nausea accompanied by dizzy feelings. Symptoms that may also be experienced include dry cough, diarrhea and running nose. The ideal remedy for such symptoms is to treat the specific condition symptomatically. Depending on the intensity of the symptom, it may be necessary to take prescription medications in certain conditions, while in most other situations, commonly available OTC medications may suffice.

Dealing with high grade fever

While low grade fevers associated with the undesirable outcomes of immunotherapy can be dealt with by relying on OTC formulations, it may be necessary to seek medical intervention to treat high grade fever. This is also important considering the possible side effects of OTC medications, or certain categories of medications. The classic example in this case is the possibility of interactions or unwanted outcomes from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs on individuals with bleeding disorders.

Dealing with skin issues from immunotherapy

This is another relatively common reaction to the therapy. An adverse reaction on the skin may be experienced by the patient and this includes a reddish appearance or itching on the site of injection. There could also be swelling, accompanied by pain in such instances, apart from the outbreak of blisters and sores in the mouth.  The best way to manage the condition is to use lukewarm water, and a good quality soap that is not scented, during bathing. On conclusion of bathing, the patient is to moisturize the skin with a product that is not scented. The patient is to avoid going out in the sun, and when it is necessary to step out in the sun, the patient is to use a strong sunscreen lotion.

Possible effect from overactive immune system

As the body’s immune system is triggered to respond to the condition, there is every possibility of the immune system turning overactive. As a consequence of this action of the immune system, there is the possibility of the healthy organs and tissues in the body getting affected due to the immune response. This includes the possibility of Pneumonitis, Myocarditis, Colitis, and Hepatitis. Other effects include the possibility of Endocrine disorders, Uveitis, and Arthritis. The conditions may usually be mild in nature, and may not necessarily require medical intervention. However, in the event of the symptoms persisting or aggravating, without any signs of letting down, it may be necessary to seek medical attention.

Patients need to look out for symptoms such as difficulty in breathing, change in blood pressure levels (low/high blood pressure), weight gain, increase in heart palpitations, organ inflammation and sinus congestion.

Drawbacks of the therapy

Individuals who plan to undergo immunotherapy as a treatment option for cancer, need to be aware of the possible drawbacks of the therapy. For instance, the therapy may cause damage to certain organs, and could also impact certain systems of the body. For instance, the therapy could cause undesirable effects on organs such as the lungs, the heart, the liver, and the kidneys. Additionally, it could also impact systems such as the digestive system.

It is essential to bear in mind that the therapy is takes longer than other typical treatment options to deliver results. As the response hinges on the body’s natural immune system, the results may not be as fast as other interventions that deliver quick results. As outlined above, the biggest drawback linked to the therapy is its suitability to only a section of patients. It is not known to deliver results for all cases, and for all patients. Additionally, the actual response may also differ from person to person, with some experiencing only partial results. For instance, in some patients the outcomes could be a reduction in the size of the tumor, while for others it could be stopping the growth of the tumor. This maybe unlike the response in others, wherein the tumor is eliminated.

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