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Immunotherapy for Head and Neck Cancer

What Is Immunotherapy for Head and Neck Cancer?

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that boosts your body's immune system so it can destroy cancer cells.

It comes in different forms including:

  • Vaccines.
  • Drugs that directly boost your immune system.
  • Immune cells that help fight your cancer.

When you receive a head and neck cancer diagnosis, your oncologist will determine if immunotherapy is part of your care. They'll also see if there's a clinical trial that may be an option for you.

Your doctor will decide the best approach based on your condition.

Types of Immunotherapy Treatments for Head and Neck Cancer

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two types of immunotherapy to treat head and neck cancer: nivolumab and pembrolizumab.

These drugs are checkpoint inhibitors, and they:

  • Both work in a similar way by taking the foot off one of the brakes of the immune system, called PD-1.
  • Help the immune system go faster and try to attack the cancer.
  • Are approved for recurrent or metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck.


Your doctor may use nivolumab if you've already tried chemotherapy and it didn't work.


You may receive this treatment:

  • As your first treatment if your cancer has returned and surgery isn't an option, or if it has spread to other organs. Doctors might use pembrolizumab alone or with chemo as your first treatment. It will depend on whether your cancer is positive for the PD-L1 biomarker. Your doctor will discuss this with you.
  • If you have already received chemo, but it didn't work.

Risks and Benefits of Immunotherapy for Head and Neck Cancer

The goal of immunotherapy treatments like nivolumab and pembrolizumab is to shrink your tumor or stop it from growing. It does this by trying to trigger the immune system to attack cancer cells.

In some people, this can control their cancer for a long time.

At the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, our experts continue to develop trials to help more people get long term benefit from immunotherapy.

Your doctor will talk to you about whether a clinical trial is an option for you.

Most people tolerate immunotherapy drugs well.

Common side effects include:

  • Fatigue
  • Rash
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mild nausea

Immunotherapy can also cause the immune system to attack its own healthy cells. While rare — when this happens — you can have side effects that range from mild to severe, including:

  • Diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Abnormal liver function tests
  • Hormone changes

If this happens, your doctor may need to stop immunotherapy and lower your immune system with steroids to end these side effects. Your doctor will discuss all of the potential side effects with you before you start treatment.

What to Expect with Immunotherapy for Head and Neck Cancer

If your doctor prescribes immunotherapy, you will receive it by an IV infusion.

A cancer nurse or doctor will treat you at an outpatient infusion center. Your nurse can tell you how long you should expect each treatment session to last once you arrive.

You may need blood work before each treatment to be sure your body is handling the treatment.

Doctors give immunotherapy in cycles, with a break between cycles to let your body rest and recover. Your doctor will give you a basic idea of how long you will need to receive immunotherapy when you start treatment.

Why Choose to Have Immunotherapy at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center?

  • We're the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in western Pa.
  • Our team has vast experience with immunotherapy in head and neck cancer. Robert L. Ferris, MD, developed and led the nivolumab clinical trial that received FDA approval for advanced head and neck cancer. This was the first immunotherapy drug approved for head and neck cancer.
  • We have clinical trials using the latest head and neck cancer drugs and treatments. Our scientists and doctors work together to develop new immunotherapy trials, some of which are only open here in the Hillman network.

Contact Us About Head and Neck Cancer

To learn more about Head and Neck Cancer or to make an appointment, you can: