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Immunotherapy for Blood Cancers at UPMC

What Is Immunotherapy (Biotherapy)?

Immunotherapy — or biotherapy — uses the body's immune system to stop, slow the growth of, or kill cancer cells. It can also prevent cancer cells from spreading beyond the original tumor site.

Doctors at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center use immunotherapy to treat all types of blood cancers.

They can use it alone or combine it with other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

How Do Immunotherapy and Chemotherapy Differ in Treating Blood Cancer?

Doctors use both chemo drugs and biotherapy to fight cancer, but these treatments work in different ways.

When Do You Use Immunotherapy to Treat Blood Cancer?

Immunotherapy is a common treatment for most blood cancers.

It can help people with:

  • Leukemias, including acute myeloid (AML), chronic myeloid (CML), acute lymphocytic (ALL), and chronic lymphocytic (CLL).
  • Lymphomas, including Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's.
  • Multiple myeloma.

Your doctor will decide to use immunotherapy treatment based on factors such as:

  • Cancer's type, size, and location.
  • Distinct features of the cancer cells.
  • Your age, health, and body weight.
  • How likely you are to cope with side effects.

Doctors use immunotherapy in a few ways to treat these cancers, including:

  • As a first treatment.
  • Alone or with other blood cancer treatments.
  • As a maintenance treatment after a first round of treatment.
  • As "rescue therapy" if other treatments don't work or stop working.

For some blood cancers or before a stem cell transplant, your doctor may use immunotherapy with steroids and chemo.

They'll explain your treatment plan and why it's a good choice for you. Feel free to ask your doctor questions before, during, or after treatment.

Types of Immunotherapy for Blood Cancer

There are many types of immunotherapies that work in different ways.

Receiving Immunotherapy for Blood Cancer at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

Each type of blood cancer has its own biotherapy regimen. You'll often receive the same treatment in the same order for the same length of time as other people with your disease.

But your doctor can also tailor your treatment to your exact blood cancer type and unique needs.

You'll receive immunotherapy in cycles. This means you'll have periods of treatment followed by rest to let your body recover.

Before you start treatment, your doctor will tell you how:

  • Long each biotherapy treatment cycle will last.
  • Many treatment cycles you'll need.

How to Prep for My Immunotherapy Treatment

Ask your blood cancer doctor these questions:

  • What's the goal of immunotherapy for my type of blood cancer?
  • Which immunotherapy drugs will I get? And what are the risks and side effects?
  • How do the side effects compare with those of other blood cancer treatments?
  • What can I do to get ready for treatment and decrease the chance of side effects?
  • How often will I need to have treatment? And can I drive myself to my treatment appointments, or should someone drive me?
  • How long will my treatments last?
  • What are the chances that immunotherapy will work? And how will I know if it's working?
  • How soon do I need to decide on my treatment options?
  • Can I take part in a clinical trial?

Write down your doctor's answers.

Ask your doctor what to do if you have questions before your next appointment.

What to Expect During Immunotherapy

You'll have treatments one or a few days a week for several weeks at either:

  • An infusion clinic.
  • Your doctor's office.
  • A hospital.

You may receive immunotherapy by mouth in pill form, shot, or IV. The form depends on the type and stage of your blood cancer.

In most cases, we'll infuse diluted immunotherapy drugs in liquid through an IV over a few hours.

Immunotherapy side effects

Side effects differ from person to person.

If your immune system overreacts against healthy tissue, not just cancer cells, you may have side effects like:

  • Rash or swelling at the IV or shot site.
  • Fatigue.
  • Fever.
  • Headache.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Other flu-like symptoms (chills and dizziness).
  • Weakness.
  • Infections.

Your UPMC blood cancer care team will:

  • Remind you of common side effects before you start treatment so you know what to watch for.
  • Check your vital signs often during treatment.
  • Test your blood for signs of anemia and other problems.

Why Choose to Have Immunotherapy at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center?

  • Our experts are on the leading edge of designing new biotherapies for blood cancer, earning national recognition for our efforts.
  • You have the chance to take part in clinical trials of breakthrough immunotherapy treatments. Many times, you won't find these treatments anywhere else.
  • We offer you and your loved ones many resources to support your mental health and well-being.

Contact Us About Blood Cancer Treatment

To make an appointment at the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, call 412-864-6600

Our address:

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center
5115 Centre Ave.
4th Floor
Pittsburgh, PA 15232

We also offer inpatient and outpatient immunotherapy for blood cancers at UPMC locations throughout western Pa. and beyond.

As one of the largest community cancer networks in the U.S., we're right in your backyard.

Search for a UPMC Hillman Cancer Center doctor or location near you.