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Immunotherapy is treatment that uses certain parts of a person’s immune system to fight diseases such as cancer. This can be done in a couple of ways:
In the last few decades immunotherapy has become an important part of treating some types of cancer. New immunotherapy treatments are being tested and approved, and new ways of working with the immune system are being discovered at a very fast pace.
Immunotherapy works better for some types of cancer than for others. It’s used by itself for some of these cancers, but for others it seems to work better when used with other types of treatment.
Your immune system is a collection of organs, special cells, and substances that help protect you from infections and some other diseases. Immune cells and the substances they make travel through your body to protect it from germs that cause infections. They also help protect you from cancer in some ways.
The immune system keeps track of all of the substances normally found in the body. Any new substance that the immune system doesn’t recognize raises an alarm, causing the immune system to attack it. For example, germs contain substances such as certain proteins that are not normally found in the human body. The immune system sees these as “foreign” and attacks them. The immune response can destroy anything containing the foreign substance, such as germs or cancer cells.
The immune system has a tougher time targeting cancer cells, though. This is because cancer starts when normal, healthy cells become changed or altered and start to grow out of control. Because cancer cells actually start in normal cells, the immune system doesn’t always recognize them as foreign.
Clearly there are limits on the immune system’s ability to fight cancer on its own, because many people with healthy immune systems still develop cancer:
To overcome this, researchers have found ways to help the immune system recognize cancer cells and strengthen its response so that it will destroy them. In this way, your own body is actually getting rid of the cancer, with some help from science.
There are several main types of immunotherapy used to treat cancer, and many are being studied. For more information about immunotherapy as a treatment for a specific cancer, please choose a cancer type.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Last Revised: December 27, 2019
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