Immunotherapy for Head & Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer can also be treated with immunotherapy to help your own immune system fight the cancer. One type, called anti-PD-1 therapy, is used to treat patients with head and neck cancer that has recurred (returned after treatment) or metastasized (spread to other parts of the body). It is usually given together with chemotherapy (carboplatin with 5FU or paclitaxel).

Here’s how it works: T cells, which are part of your immune system, have the power to kill cancer cells. However, a protein called PD-1, which is found on the surface of T cells, can link to another protein called PD-L1 and help cancer cells “hide” from the immune system. Anti-PD-1 therapies such as pembrolizumab (brand name Keytruda®) and nivolumab (brand name Opdivo®) latch onto PD-1 and “release the brakes” of your immune system so your T cells can find and kill the cancer cells.

Side effects of immunotherapy can cause symptoms ranging from rash and joint pain to more serious conditions, including thyroid disorder, pneumonitis (inflammation of the lung tissue, which can cause cough and shortness of breath), colitis (inflammation of the lining of the colon, which can cause diarrhea and abdominal pain), worsening of kidney function, injury to the liver, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle, which may or may not cause symptoms), hyperglycemia (increase in blood glucose levels or even diabetes), or other, rarer problems. Steroids are used to treat milder side effects, but if side effects are moderate to severe, immunotherapy will be discontinued either temporarily or permanently.

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