Using Your Immune System to Fight Cancer

At Sanford Cancer, you have the option of immunotherapy – boosting your body’s immune system to fight cancer.

Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy or biotherapy, may be used to:

  • Treat or manage cancer. Immunotherapy may be used with other treatments to help them work better. Immunotherapy works best to treat early-stage cancers.


  • Prevent cancer. Cancer vaccines help protect against viruses that can cause some cancers. One example is the vaccine for human papillomavirus, or HPV. This virus causes cervical cancer, as well as other cancers. Find out more about the HPV vaccine.

How does cancer immunotherapy work?

Cancer immunotherapy uses substances made in your body or in a lab to boost your immune system. 

The cells, antibodies and organs of your immune system work to defend your body against invaders, such as bacteria or viruses. In immunotherapy, your immune system gets a boost so it can better detect healthy cells versus cancer cells. It also makes the body better at killing cancer cells.

Immunotherapy takes different forms depending on your treatment. It can be given as a shot, an IV fluid injection or a blood cell infusion.

Your doctor might use immunotherapy alone or with other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, including IORT for breast cancer patients. 

What are the side effects of immunotherapy?

Side effects of immunotherapy tend to be different from those with other types of drug treatments such as chemotherapy. In many cases they are less severe. But they can still be serious in some people.

Some of the more common side effects from immunotherapy medicines can include:

  • Feeling tired
  • Cough
  • Nausea
  • Skin itching or rash
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Joint pain

Less often, these medicines can cause more serious side effects. This is because they can let the immune system attack some normal cells in the body.

Ask your doctor or nurse for more details about possible side effects. Tell us about any changes or side effects you notice. We can suggest ways to make you feel better. In most cases, side effects will start getting better within a few weeks after your treatment ends.

Don't fight cancer alone. Explore your treatment options with an immunotherapy specialist. 

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