Immunotherapy is mostly used to treat people with cancer that has spread throughout their body.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps your own immune system to fight cancer.

Your immune system is how your body naturally protects you from disease by killing bacteria and germs.

Immunotherapy is given as an infusion through a needle or catheter, usually intravenously (IV)

Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. It starts in our genes. Our bodies are constantly making new cells, a process controlled by certain genes. Cancers are caused by damage to these genes. As the damaged cells replicate a lump or tumour is formed. 

Tumours can be:

  • Benign - not cancerous. These do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant - cancerous


Types of immunotherapy

Checkpoint inhibitors

Sometimes, cancer cells can trick the immune system into "turning off" and stop it from attacking the cancer cells. 

Medications called checkpoint inhibitors are used to turn the immune system cells back on so they can find and attack the cancer cells.

Cancer vaccines as a treatment

Cancer vaccines work differently than vaccines that stop you from getting viruses. Cancer vaccines help the immune system to attack cancer cells that are already in the body.

When is immunotherapy used?

Immunotherapy is currently mostly used to treat people with cancer that has spread throughout their body (advanced cancer).

Immunotherapy aims to:

  • cure the cancer
  • shrink the cancer before an operation
  • help radiation treatment work better
  • relieve some of the symptoms caused by your cancer
  • reduce the possibility of your cancer coming back
  • help you live longer

Your treatment team will offer the best treatment for you based on the type and stage of cancer as well as your general health.

This means you may have different treatments from someone else, even if their cancer type is the same type as yours.

Before any treatment begins, make sure that you have discussed and understood your treatment team's advice. You may ask for a second opinion if you want one.

Side effects of immunotherapy

The side effects you may have will be different depending on what type of immunotherapy you have. 

Common side effects are:

  • dry or itchy eyes
  • pain in your joints
  • skin rashes
  • tummy pain and bloating
  • diarrhoea or blood in your poo

Less common side effects are:

  • headaches
  • change in your eyesight
  • whites of your eyes turning yellow
  • shortness of breath and coughing
  • severe tummy pain
  • dark coloured pee (urine)
  • issues with your thyroid

Immunotherapy in New Zealand

In New Zealand as of 1 April 2023, immunotherapies pembrolizumab (Keytruda), atezolizumab (Tecentriq) and durvalumab (Imfinzi) are funded for people who meet the Special Authority criteria set by Pharmac.

Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) is funded as a first-line treatment for advanced non-small cell lung cancer, atezolizumab (Tecentriq) is funded as a second or later-line treatment for advanced non-small cell lung cancer, and durvalumab (Imfinzi) is funded for stage 3 non-small cell lung cancer.

Nivolumab (Opdivo) has been approved for use but is not funded by Pharmac.

Health Navigator: Immune checkpoint inhibitor information

Overview of immune checkpoint inhibitors for advanced NSCLC

Keytruda (pembrolizumab) information

Tecentriq (atezolizumab) information

Using other medications or treatment

Immunotherapy can mix with common medicines and cause harmful side-effects.

It is important to let your treatment team know about any other medicines or supplements you are taking so they can check for any known reactions. 

Talk with your treatment team before having any vaccinations.

Using complementary or traditional healing

Sometimes people with cancer might think about using complementary therapies or traditional healing.

Some alternative, complementary and traditional healing methods may react with the treatment you receive and cause harmful side-effects.

It is important to talk to your treatment team about any other therapies you’re using or thinking about because they may interfere with hospital treatment.

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Last updated: April 17, 2023