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Biological Therapy for Cancer Treatment

What is biological therapy?

Biological therapy is medicine designed to work with your immune system to fight cancer or to help prevent or block the growth of cancer cells. Most of the time, it has less side effects compared to other cancer treatments. In some cases, it may reduce side effects of chemotherapy. The immune system is your body’s defense against infections and disease.

Other names for this kind of cancer treatment are biotherapy, immunotherapy, biologic therapy, and biological response modifier therapy (BRM).

When is it used?

Biological therapy may help your immune system fight cancer in different ways:

  • It may make it easier for your immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells.
  • It may stop or slow the growth of cancer cells.
  • It may keep cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.

How do I prepare for this procedure?

Ask your healthcare provider what your schedule will be and how you should expect to feel.

  • Plan for your care and find someone to give you a ride home after the procedure. It is helpful to have a family member or friend with you during your treatments.
  • Tell your provider if you have had kidney problems or an allergy to chemicals, such as contrast dye. Contrast dye is used for some scans.
  • You may or may not need to take your regular medicines the day of the procedure, depending on what they are and when you need to take them. Tell your healthcare provider about all medicines and supplements that you take.
  • Follow any instructions your healthcare provider gives you.
  • Ask any questions you have before the procedure. You should understand what your healthcare provider is going to do and how the treatments are likely to make you feel.

What happens during the procedure?

Different kinds of drugs may be used for biological therapy. Many of the substances used for biological therapy occur naturally in the body. Some are manmade. Here are some examples of the types of biotherapy drugs:

  • Interferons can help your immune system fight cancer cells. Interferons may also slow the growth of cancer cells or make them act more like normal cells.
  • Interleukins help your body make more immune cells. These immune cells can then destroy cancer cells.
  • Colony-stimulating factors (CSFs) help your body make more blood cells. This helps prevent or lessen the side effects of other cancer treatments.
  • Monoclonal antibodies are substances created in the lab. They can attach themselves to certain cancer cells. They may be used to:
    • Improve your immune response to the cancer
    • Help stop the growth of cancer cells
    • Deliver chemotherapy drugs directly to the cancer
  • Nonspecific immunomodulating agents help the immune system work better to fight disease.
  • Cancer vaccines are being developed to treat certain kinds of cancer. For example, there is a vaccine to treat advanced prostate cancer that is made with your white blood cells.
  • Gene therapy is an experimental treatment that puts genetic material into your cells to fight or prevent disease. For example, a gene may be put into an immune cell to help it recognize and attack cancer cells.

Some medicines used for biological therapy are given as pills or shots that you can take at home. Others are given through an IV (into a vein) at a hospital or clinic. The therapy may be given daily, weekly, or monthly. Your healthcare provider will tell you how often you will get your treatment and how long you will need to be on it.

What happens after the procedure?

Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • What activities you should avoid, including how much weight you can lift and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

What are the risks of this procedure?

Like other forms of cancer treatment, biological therapy can cause side effects such as:

  • Allergic reaction (hives; itching; rash; trouble breathing; tightness in your chest; swelling of your lips, tongue, and throat)
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Weakness and tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rashes or swelling where the medicine is injected
  • Fever and chills
  • Bone pain or muscle aches

If the side effects get severe, treatment may be stopped for a while, or the dose may be lowered. In extreme cases, treatment may be stopped completely and other treatment options may be considered.

Your healthcare provider will explain the procedure and any risks. Some possible risks include:

  • If you are also having radiation therapy or chemotherapy, you may have more side effects.
  • Biological therapy may not destroy all of the cancer.
  • The cancer may come back.

Every procedure or treatment has risks. Ask your healthcare provider how these risks apply to you. Be sure to discuss any other questions or concerns that you may have.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-09-10
Last reviewed: 2014-09-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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