How Does Immunotherapy Differ from Chemotherapy?

Immunotherapy and chemotherapy are two cancer treatments which apply different approaches to destroying cancer cells. They have very different side effects as well. A typical misconception patients have about immunotherapy for cancer treatment involves the side effects. Patients often assume that immunotherapy’s side effects will be much like those they would expect from one of the most frequently used cancer treatments, chemotherapy. However, this is a mistaken perception, and one that should be cleared up for those considering these treatments.

How These Therapies Work

Immunotherapy drugs and chemotherapy drugs use different methodologies in the body to seek and destroy cancer cells. Although killing the cancer is the ultimate goal, the approach is different, depending on the treatment used.

Immunotherapy includes a variety of treatments that boost the body’s immune function and help the body’s immune system to fight off cancer cells. This FDA-approved cancer treatment has shown improved outcomes for several different types of cancers and can be used in conjunction with chemotherapy or after chemotherapy has failed to achieve the desired goal.

Chemotherapy, in comparison, is designed to attack rapidly dividing cells indiscriminately, Cancer cells possess a defining quality of rapid growth and cell division, so chemotherapy attempts to eliminate cancers by targeting any type of cell that is growing quickly.

Unfortunately, specific healthy cells, such as those in the digestive tract, also possess the quality of dividing rapidly, so chemotherapy is unable to discriminate and targets these cells as well. The targeting of healthy cells in a rapid growth phase is responsible for chemotherapy’s well-known side effects, including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Mouth sores
  • Hair loss
  • Decreased blood counts

These adverse side effects are the result of chemotherapy attacking healthy cells directly while in the process of targeting the rapidly dividing cancer cells.

Revving Up Immune Function With Immunotherapy 

Immunotherapy boosts the body’s natural immune function. Cancer cells stealthily find ways to mimic healthy cells, preventing specific immune cells from recognizing them as foreign cells. Since the immune cells do not detect the malignant cells, they fail to target them, allowing the tumor to grow and spread throughout the body unchecked.

With immunotherapy treatment, the cancer-fighting immune cells can discriminate between cancer cells and healthy cells better, and can then shrink or kill the cancer cells more effectively. Consequently, immunotherapy is more useful at recognizing and eliminating cancer cells and is less likely to kill off healthy cells as well.

Immunotherapy is not free of side effects, however. Its side effects stem from the way it revs up the immune system. Side effects can include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Liver inflammation
  • Rashes

Fortunately, a qualified immunotherapy doctor has ways to treat these side effects can counsel and support patients through the process.