Immunotherapy is a treatment used to combat some forms of skin cancer. The immune system protects the body against germs, but cancer cells masquerade as healthy cells, thus avoiding the immune system. Immunotherapy medicines stimulate a person’s immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively. Called “checkpoint inhibitors,” these drugs directly target the proteins in immune cells that need to be “turned on” to begin a response. This treatment is most often recommended for people who have cancer that has spread, advanced squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma.
If your skin cancer has metastasized, this may be a good treatment option. That said, you will need to have a formal diagnosis to receive any type of skin cancer treatment. If you suspect you have skin cancer, even if you’ve just noticed a new spot in the shower, make an appointment at our Chesterfield office. A skin cancer screening is the first step toward treatment.
What should I expect during immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy drugs are provided intravenously or by injection. Most doctors prefer to provide the drugs every 2 to 3 weeks in a repeating cycle, which is then followed by a period of rest. This cycle will continue until the cancer is gone or significantly reduced.
The type of drugs used in immunotherapy will depend on the type of cancer it is being used to treat. For example, melanoma immunotherapy typically utilizes pembrolizumab and nivolumab, whereas basal and squamous cell carcinoma immunotherapy use cemiplimab. Your diagnosis will inform the type of immunotherapy your doctor recommends.
Immunotherapy is a skin cancer treatment that requires several infusions, which means recovery time will vary depending on the infusion. The length of time it takes side effects to manifest will vary, but most will see them appear in the first weeks of treatment. However, with proper treatment, side effects can resolve in 1 to 3 weeks.
Are there any immunotherapy side effects?
Immunotherapy targets the immune system, which means patients are likely to experience more dramatic side effects than they might in a localized treatment. The most common side effects include:
- Skin rash
- Diarrhea, constipation, and other gastrointestinal issues
- Loss of appetite
- Bone or joint pain
Other, more serious side effects may also occur. Infusion reactions, like allergic reactions, can include fever, chills, a rash, itchy skin, wheezing, and trouble breathing. Autoimmune reactions are also known to occur, as immunotherapy drugs work by removing a safeguard that keeps the immune system from attacking other parts of the body. This can lead to serious problems in the lungs, liver, intestines, kidneys, and other organs.
Because the side effects to immunotherapy can be very severe, it is important to keep track of how you feel after the procedure. Report any new side effects to your doctor as soon as possible. If serious side effects occur, treatment may be stopped.
How effective is immunotherapy?
This type of skin cancer treatment can be remarkably effective for some people. Immunotherapy melanoma survival rates are encouraging; a recent study found that patients who received immunotherapy lived around 50 percent longer than those who did not receive the treatment. Their four-year survival rate more than doubled. While no single skin cancer treatment is guaranteed to work, this can be an excellent choice for some patients.
Contact our local dermatology clinic to learn more about immunotherapy in St. Louis.