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Immunotherapy is the use of medicines to boost a person’s own immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively. Immunotherapy typically works on specific proteins involved in the immune system to enhance the immune response. They have different and sometimes less severe side effects than chemotherapy.
Some immunotherapy drugs, for example, monoclonal antibodies, work in more than one way to control cancer cells and may also be considered targeted therapy because they block a specific protein on the cancer cell to keep it from growing.
Immunotherapy can sometimes be used to treat cervical cancer.
An important part of the immune system is its ability to keep itself from attacking the body's normal cells. To do this, it uses “checkpoints” – proteins on immune cells that need to be turned on (or off) to start an immune response. Cancer cells sometimes use these checkpoints to avoid being attacked by the immune system. Newer drugs that target these checkpoints are being used as cancer treatments.
Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) targets PD-1, a protein on immune system cells called T cells that normally helps keep these cells from attacking other cells in the body. By blocking PD-1, these drugs boost the immune response against cancer cells. This can shrink some tumors or slow their growth.
Before pembrolizumab can be used, a lab test might need to be done on the cancer cells to show they have at least a certain amount of the PD-L1 protein.
If enough PD-L1 protein is detected, pembrolizumab can be used:
This immunotherapy drug is given as an intravenous (IV) infusion every 3 or 6 weeks.
Side effects of immunotherapy drugs can include fatigue, fever, nausea, headache, skin rash, loss of appetite, constipation, joint/muscle pain, and diarrhea.
Other, more serious side effects occur less often. These drugs work by basically removing the brakes on the body’s immune system. Sometimes the immune system starts attacking other parts of the body, which can cause serious or even life-threatening problems in the lungs, intestines, liver, hormone-making glands, kidneys, or other organs.
It’s very important to report any new side effects to your health care team right away. If you do have a serious side effect, treatment may need to be stopped and you may be given high doses of corticosteroids to suppress your immune system.
To learn more about immunotherapy, see Cancer Immunotherapy.
For more information about side effects, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.
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.
Eifel P, Klopp AH, Berek JS, and Konstantinopoulos A. Chapter 74: Cancer of the Cervix, Vagina, and Vulva. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
Jhungran A, Russell AH, Seiden MV, Duska LR, Goodman A, Lee S, et al. Chapter 84: Cancers of the Cervix, Vulva, and Vagina. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2020.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Cervical Cancer. Version 5.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/cervical.pdf on December 12, 2019.
Last Revised: October 15, 2021
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