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How Can You Tell if Immunotherapy Is Working?

Immunotherapy is a promising biological treatment that can be used for several types of cancer. However, different patients respond to immunotherapy in different ways, and the treatment is not effective for everyone. To determine whether and how well immunotherapy is working, a physician will continually monitor the patient’s progress.

Unlike chemotherapy and radiation treatment - which can cause a rapid change in the size of a tumor that can be seen and measured on imaging scans and through changes in tumor marker levels in the blood - immunotherapy can take longer to work. As immunotherapy medications gradually enhance the natural cancer-fighting capabilities of the immune system, a tumor may continue to grow. Additionally, some patients experience a delayed response to immunotherapy, while others experience an initial positive response followed by a relapse as the cancer develops resistance to the immunotherapy medications. For all of these reasons, it can take weeks or months to see a measurable response to immunotherapy.

Signs immunotherapy is working

In general, a positive response to immunotherapy is measured by a shrinking or stable tumor. Although treatment side effects such as inflammation may be a sign that immunotherapy is affecting the immune system in some way, the precise link between immunotherapy side effects and treatment success is unclear. Many patients who respond positively to immunotherapy have no side effects.

During and after immunotherapy, the patient will have regular checkups with his or her physician. In addition to performing a physical examination and asking how the patient feels, the physician may order laboratory tests to check samples of blood, urine and other bodily fluids or tissues for abnormal cells or tumor markers. The physician may also order imaging scans to measure the size of the tumor.

Leading the way in cancer treatment

At Moffitt Cancer Center, we are continually working to advance our understanding of the many complexities of immunotherapy for cancer treatment. Our dedicated research team is constantly investigating new ways to extend the benefits of various immunotherapies to more patients.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Jose Conejo-Garcia, MD, PhD, Chair, Department of Immunology

If you have questions about immunotherapy for cancer treatment, you can talk with a specialist in our comprehensive Immunotherapy Program. Request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing our new patient registration form online.