Immunotherapy – the use of medications that improve the immune system’s response to cancer cells – continues to evolve as a go-to treatment option for cancer. Immunotherapy can be administered in several formulations, including cancer vaccines, immune checkpoint inhibitors, T cell therapy, and more. However, immunotherapy sometimes causes the body to attack healthy cells, so patients may experience side effects during treatment.
Here’s a closer look at the most common immunotherapy side effects, and how the Regional Cancer Care Associates team recommends managing them.
Virus-like symptoms akin to the flu are among the most common immunotherapy side effects. They most often occur in patients undergoing non-specific immunotherapy treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies, T cell therapy, and oncolytic virus therapy. These flu-like symptoms, which can also result from other types of immunotherapy, include:
- Sinus congestion
- Fever or chills
- Body aches or weakness
- Nausea or vomiting
- Higher or lower blood pressure than normal
If you or a loved one experiences these symptoms during treatment, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and electrolyte-based fluids as needed. In most cases, these side effects will subside naturally, but if you are experiencing frequent vomiting from consuming liquids, visit Regional Cancer Care Associates right away.
Depending on the type of medication your immunotherapy requires, you may also experience side effects that impact your skin. Dryness, blistering, or redness are most common, but you may also notice changes in skin color, cracked fingertips, inflammation near the fingernails and toenails, or increased sensitivity to sunlight. In some cases, hair loss also may occur.
If you experience skin-related immunotherapy side effects, try to resist the temptation to scratch, as doing so can cause further irritation or infection. The following tips also can help minimize skin-related side effects:
- Use sunscreen daily. Choose a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher
- Avoid strongly scented soaps, as fragrances used in these products may dry the skin
- Make sure your laundry detergent is gentle and not perfumed
- Don’t use skin products that contain alcohol or retinoids
You can also consult with your oncologist or dermatologist about medications that may treat your symptoms and provide relief.
Other Physical and Mental Health Symptoms
Unfortunately, the side effects from immunotherapy are many, and can also include swelling, trouble breathing, weight gain, hormonal changes, and more.
As you manage the physical side effects of immunotherapy treatments, you may also notice an impact on your emotional and mental health. Whether you’re experiencing stress, anxiety, mood swings, or depression, looking for ways to maintain a positive attitude can help. Many Regional Cancer Care Associates patients find meditation, massage, acupuncture, breathing exercises, and other relaxation techniques to be especially helpful. But if you’re struggling to cope, seek the support of your friends, family, or a professional therapist.
Monitoring Your Side Effects
It’s important to note that immunotherapy side effects may continue to develop for weeks, months, or even years after your treatments conclude. Therefore, you need to monitor your symptoms and keep your doctors informed, as they can recommend specific strategies to help you cope. At Regional Cancer Care Associates, we guide patients through these hurdles with our palliative care services, which address the negative side effects that accompany cancer and its treatments. For more information, contact us today.