Chemotherapy vs. Immunotherapy
Once the shock and disbelief of the cancer diagnosis begin to settle in, you are left with many lingering questions about the diagnosis and your life.
- How will this change you?
- What do you tell the people you love?
- Can you still work?
Perhaps, the most significant question facing people with a new or returning cancer diagnosis is – what am I going to do about it? Fortunately, there is no shortage of available cancer treatment options to ease the symptoms of cancer or cure the condition altogether.
Two of the main primary treatments – chemotherapy and immunotherapy – can help you answer the questions cancer creates. Which treatment is best for you, your life, and your diagnosis – chemotherapy or immunotherapy?
What Is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy (chemo) is the treatment name when drugs are used to kill cancer in the body. By killing the cancer, chemo stops the cells from growing into tumors and spreading throughout the body.
Many drugs are used in chemotherapy. Medications may be prescribed alone or in combination with other chemotherapy drugs to create a “cocktail” specifically designed for your cancer’s development.
The goals of chemo vary based on when the treatment is used. Chemo can be:
- Neoadjuvant chemotherapy. Early in treatment, before surgery or radiation, to shrink tumors.
- Adjuvant chemotherapy. Later in treatment, following surgery or a round of radiation.
- The only form of treatment.
Chemo is often completed at a clinic, hospital, or doctor’s office for a period of time between 6 months and a year. During these visits, the medication can be given by:
- Intravenous injection
- Intra-arterial injection
- Intraperitoneal injection – the area in your body containing your organs
- Muscle or under-the-skin injection
- Mouth as an oral pill, capsule, or liquid you swallow
- Topical cream or lotion
Doctors might prescribe treatment completed every day or at an alternative frequency based on the severity of the condition and power of the particular medication.
The most consistent negative associated with chemotherapy is the group of side effects triggered by the treatment. Since chemotherapy kills healthy cells as well as cancer cells, side effects and unwanted results of chemotherapy are numerous.
Some of the most common and uncomfortable side effects of chemotherapy are:
- Mouth sores
- Hair loss
The intensity of the side effects will dictate how often the chemotherapy is given.
What Is Immunotherapy?
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer whereas immunotherapy is a treatment that helps your immune system fight and destroy the cancer. Immunotherapies either attack the cancer directly or activate the immune system in a widespread way to fight off all diseases.
The types of immunotherapies that target cancer may involve changing the ways your T cells interact with cancer. T cells (a type of white blood cell active in the immune system) can be modified within the body or grown in a lab and injected back into your body.
The types of immunotherapies that activate the immune system include the use of proteins or bacteria to spark a strong immune response. When the immune system is strong, it can better protect you from the progress of cancer by seeking out and destroying the harmful cells throughout your body.
Just like chemotherapy, you can receive immunotherapy daily, weekly, monthly or in cycles with gaps in treatment for recovery. Immunotherapy is given in several ways including:
- Intravesical – given directly into the bladder.
Proton beam therapy is a type of external beam radiation therapy that uses high-energy beams to treat tumors. Learn more about it here.
Although immunotherapy does not attack healthy cells as chemo does, it still has the ability to create some unwanted side effects like:
- Skin reactions at the injection site
- Flu-like symptoms include:
- Fever/ chills
- Nausea and vomiting
- Swelling and weight gain
- Heart palpitations
All medications and treatments for cancer carry a risk of side effects. When developing your plan of action, you and your treatment team will have to weigh the risks and benefits of each type.
Chemotherapy or Immunotherapy?
Now that you know the basics and drawbacks of these treatments, you can make a better decision about which option is best for you. Don’t worry too much about making a choice, though, in most circumstances, and your oncology team will recommend the best choice based on your:
- The type of cancer you have.
- The aggressiveness, progression, or stage of the cancer.
- The goals of treatment.
- Prognosis of treatment.
- Other medical conditions which could interfere with treatment.
With that being said, chemotherapy is a much more common form of treatment with wider availability and lower costs. Since chemotherapy has been used extensively for many years, there is tremendous research and studies regarding its effectiveness.
Immunotherapy is less common and might be less accessible for people seeking a remedy for their condition. The treatment has a great track record of successfully treating specific forms of cancer, though.
Cancers that seem to respond well to immunotherapy include:
- Kidney cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Head and neck cancers
- Some forms of lung cancer
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma
What’s the best thing about chemotherapy and immunotherapy for cancer treatment? You may not have to choose one.
Depending on your treatment plan, you might have a combination of treatments. Over time, it is possible for both chemo and immunotherapy to improve your life.