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What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy (also called biologic therapy, biological response modifier therapy, or biotherapy) uses the body's immune system to fight cancer. The cells, antibodies and organs of the immune system work to protect and defend the body against foreign invaders, such as bacteria or viruses. Doctors and researchers have found that the immune system might also be able to fight the cancer cells.

Why it's done

Immunotherapies are designed to boost your immune system, either directly or indirectly, by assisting the immune system to:

  • Stop, control or suppress the processes that allow cancers to grow
  • Make cancer cells more recognizable to the immune system and, therefore, more susceptible to destruction by the immune system
  • Boost the killing power of immune system cells
  • Enhance the body's ability to repair or replace normal cells damaged or destroyed by other forms of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation
  • Prevent cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body

Our approach

At Northwell Health Cancer Institute, our team of medical oncologists offers leading-edge immunotherapies to fight cancer. This begins with an in-depth conversation describing your treatment, including what to expect, possible side effects and goals. Personalized treatment also includes careful consideration of current health, family history, age and your preferences.

Your multidisciplinary team of doctors, including radiologists, surgeons, pathologists, medical oncologists and radiology oncologists, collaborates to ensure that every aspect of your treatment is precisely coordinated. This includes ongoing peer review and chart rounds.

Because convenience is a priority, we offer multiple locations for immunotherapy to enable you to obtain treatment near where you live or work. In addition, assistance is available to help with obtaining medications, managing insurance issues and completing routine paperwork.

Research at Northwell

Advances in immunotherapy are continuously happening here. Through alliances with leading research organizations, including OPKO Health, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and NRG Oncology, we participate in investigator-initiated trials to offer the most leading-edge immunotherapies available to patients. 

Northwell Health Cancer Institute is recognized worldwide for its commitment to providing pioneering treatment for cancer patients. Our ongoing focus on improving cancer treatments has contributed to significant advancements that are improving quality of life and survival rates.

Learn more about clinical trials and research happening at Northwell Health Cancer Institute.

Types of immunotherapy

Types of immunotherapies include:

  • Checkpoint inhibitors—A type of drug that blocks certain proteins made by some types of immune system cells, such as cancer cells. When these proteins are blocked, the “brakes” on the immune system are released, and the body’s T cells are able to kill cancer cells better.
  • Adoptive T cell (CAR-T)—Enhances the natural cancer-fighting ability of T cells by removing immune system cells from the body, growing or making changes to them outside of the body and then reinfusing them back into the patient.
  • Bispecific T cell engagers (BITE)—A new class of immunotherapeutic molecules that are used to treat cancer by enhancing the immune response to tumors by retargeting T cells to tumor cells.

What to expect

You may be prescribed immunotherapy as part of your treatment plan to either treat the cancer or side effects of cancer treatment. In some cases, it is used in conjunction with other types of cancer treatments, including radiation and chemotherapy.

Your medical oncologist will require some lab tests before and during your treatment to see how your body responds to the therapy. Immunotherapy is administered in a variety of ways, most commonly by using biologic agents that stimulate the immune system.

Possible side effects

Common side effects of immunotherapy include:

  • Skin reactions
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Jaundice 

Our team of specialists is highly focused on preventing and managing side effects throughout and after your treatment.

Support groups

Cancer is challenging, but you don’t have to go it alone. At Northwell Health Cancer Institute, a wide range of support groups are available to help you cope with diagnosis, treatment and post-treatment issues.

Learn more about support groups.

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