What Is Immunotherapy?


Immunotherapy medicines use the power of your body’s immune system to attack cancer cells.

Your immune system is made up of a number of organs, tissues, and cells that work together to protect you from foreign invaders that can cause disease. When a disease- or infection-causing agent, such as a bacterium, virus, or fungus, gets into your body, your immune system reacts and works to kill the invaders. This self-defense system works to keep you from getting sick.

Cancer immunotherapy medicines work by helping your immune system work harder or more efficiently to fight cancer cells. Immunotherapy uses substances — either made naturally by your body or man-made in a lab — to boost the immune system to:

  • stop or slow cancer cell growth
  • stop cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body
  • be better at killing cancer cells

To start an immune system response to a foreign invader, the immune system has to be able to tell the difference between cells or substances that are “self” (part of you) versus “non-self” (not part of you and possibly harmful). Your body’s cells have proteins on their surfaces or inside them that help the immune system recognize them as “self.” This is part of the reason the immune system usually doesn’t attack your body’s own tissues. (Autoimmune disorders happen when the immune system mistakenly attacks your own tissues, such as the thyroid gland, joints, connective tissue, or other organs.)

“Non-self” cells have proteins and other substances on their surfaces and inside them that the body doesn’t recognize, called antigens. Foreign antigens trigger the immune system to attack them and the cells they are in or on, whether viruses, bacteria, or infected cells. This response either destroys the foreign invaders or keeps them in check so they can’t harm the body.

So why doesn’t your immune system attack breast cancer cells on its…

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