How does immunotherapy work?

Immunotherapy stimulates the immune system to help fight cancer. This allows the immune system to do one of three things:


Allow the immune system to work harder in attacking cancer cells


Boost the immune system with various man-made components to better fight cancer


Train the immune system to only attack cancer cells

When is immunotherapy used?

Cancer immunotherapy may be an effective option for patients with certain types of cancer including melanoma, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, kidney, lung, bladder, and head and neck cancers.

Depending on the type and extent of the cancer, cancer immunotherapy treatments may be paired with other forms of treatment such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapies.

Your medical oncologist will work together with the other experts on your cancer care team to determine the best possible treatment for you.

Types of Immunotherapy

Checkpoint Inhibitors

The immune system needs to be able to tell the difference between normal and foreign cells, and know which to attack. To do this, checkpoints—certain proteins on the surface of T-cells (a type of white blood cells)—activate or inactivate these T-cells to start an immune response. Checkpoint inhibitor treatments disrupt “inactivate” signals from the proteins, exposing the cancer cells as invaders and allowing the T-cells to attack.

  • Checkpoint inhibitors are the most widely used form of immunotherapy for cancer. Generally, 20 to 30 percent of patients are helped by this form of cancer therapy. Some patients with advanced disease have experienced remissions lasting for years.

Side effects of this treatment are minimal for many patients. Checkpoint inhibitors can create autoimmune issues, meaning the immune system attacks healthy tissue along with the cancer. These side effects can vary; however, most side effects can be well managed with steroid medications.

Your Team at Intermountain Cancer Center

Every patient and every cancer is different. Every treatment plan is also different, based on national guidelines and your specific pathology.

Whatever your plan is, you can be confident with your care team at Intermountain Cancer Center locations. Our highly trained team of medical oncologists is experienced in providing cancer immunotherapy. The Cancer Immunotherapy Program at Intermountain Cancer Center is also actively researching and offering clinical trials to increase opportunities for effective cancer treatments.

What to expect during immunotherapy

Immunotherapy Side Effects

The side effects that you may experience will depend on the cancer immunotherapy treatment you are taking and how your immune system reacts to that treatment. Though cancer immunotherapy treatments are fairly well tolerated (there’s no hair loss), a different set of side effects are possible during or after treatment.

Certain types of cancer immunotherapy treatments may come with side effects such as fatigue, fever, chills, nausea, and reactions at the site of the infusion. Your care team will have a better idea of the side effects you may experience. Ask your care team for a list so that you can recognize and manage them as soon as they begin, and keep track of your side effects to update your care team.


Tumors can respond differently to cancer immunotherapy treatment based on how well your immune system can target the cancer cells. For some patients, treatment can help shrink or eradicate the tumor and for others, it can stop or slow the tumor’s growth. Your care team will use scans to monitor your treatment progress and always let you know the you next steps.

What’s the difference between chemotherapy and immunotherapy?

Chemotherapy uses chemical substances to kill cancerous cells. Chemo drugs work by attacking all rapidly dividing cells in the body, which can include cells other than the cancer (like hair follicles).

Immunotherapy empowers your own immune system to fight cancerous cells. There are different types of immunotherapy but they all work to allow the immune system to recognize cancer cells as an invader and destroy it.

Either treatment may be given alone or in combination with other treatments like surgery or radiation therapy.

Frequently Asked Questions

How effective is immunotherapy for cancer?

Every individual’s treatment and success looks different, because cancer presents itself differently in every body. Immunotherapy may be an effective option for patients with certain types of cancer including melanoma, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, kidney, lung, bladder, head and neck cancers.