6 Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Immuno-Oncology for Head and Neck Cancer

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Head and neck cancer is the broad term for cancers affecting the mouth, throat, voice box, sinuses, nose, and salivary glands, among others. If you have head or neck cancer, you probably have many questions about your treatment options. Maybe you’ve already tried treatments like chemotherapy or radiation, but your cancer hasn’t responded or has come back after treatment. An emerging field of cancer research called immuno-oncology has brought about a new treatment option called immunotherapy that might be able to help. In fact, studies show that immunotherapy might be a better choice for advanced head and neck cancers than previously thought. If you’re interested in immunotherapy, these questions can help you learn more.

1. What is immunotherapy?

Put simply, immunotherapy is a method of treating certain types of cancers by using your body’s own immune system to fight the disease. Research shows that these advanced types of head and neck cancers are often able to trick your body’s immune system into thinking they’re not harmful, preventing an immune attack. Immunotherapy helps make cancer cells more recognizable to your body—that way, your body knows which cells to combat. Traditional treatment options aren’t able to help your immune system this way. Currently, there are two immunotherapy drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat head and neck cancers: pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and nivolumab (Opdivo). More options are expected to emerge in the next several years.

2. Could immunotherapy help me?

Every patient’s cancer journey is unique, but many head and neck cancer patients have benefited from this new treatment option. There’s no way to know if immunotherapy will work for you until you try it, although researchers are working on developing a test to predict if patients will respond well. Compared to standard treatments, some patients have had success with specific immunotherapy drugs shown to shrink tumors and increase overall survival rates. Other research shows that using certain types of immunotherapy drugs at the same time as radiation therapy or chemotherapy might increase the overall survival rate of patients. Ultimately, your immunotherapy treatment options depend on your individual situation and your doctor’s recommendation.

3. Do certain types of head and neck cancer respond better to immunotherapy?

This type of treatment seems to work better for some types of head and neck cancers than for others. Immunotherapy might be a good option for patients with advanced head and neck cancers that have relapsed or spread. Once these types of cancers have reached this point, they might be harder to treat successfully with traditional methods, like chemotherapy or radiation.

4. What does treatment usually involve?

Immunotherapy can be used alone, or it can be combined with other cancer treatments to try to achieve better results. Right now, the two FDA-approved immunotherapies are administered via IV, but in clinical trials, other methods are used. For example, studies are investigating the benefits of collecting some of your immune system cells, called T cells, from your blood. The T cells are modified in a laboratory so they can better recognize cancer cells, and then they are returned to your body.

5. Are there side effects to immunotherapy?

Just like with any medical treatment, immunotherapy does carry the risk of side effects. You might have flu-like symptoms including fever, chills, and nausea. If you receive treatment through an IV, you might have pain, redness, or soreness at the injection site. Some patients report other side effects like swelling, weight gain, diarrhea, or sinus congestion. If you have side effects, it’s important to tell your doctor immediately.

6. How do I get started with immunotherapy for head and neck cancer?

If you’re interested in starting treatment with immunotherapy, talk to your doctor about whether this could be the right choice for you and your specific cancer. You might benefit from the FDA-approved immunotherapeutic drugs available, or you could try one of the clinical trials currently enrolling patients to study the effects of new types of immunotherapies.

Immunotherapy might be a good option for you if you have certain types of head and neck cancers. Your doctor can help you decide if this new treatment approach might benefit you, or if it could be combined with your current treatment for better results. Don’t be afraid to begin the conversation and explore your treatment options.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jan 5

  1. What is cancer immunotherapy? American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/immunotherapy/immunotherapy-what-is-immunotherapy

  2. The emerging role of immunotherapy in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC): anti-tumor immunity and clinical applications. Annals of Translational Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4876265/

  3. Understanding immunotherapy. American Society of Clinical Oncology. http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/immunotherapy-and-vaccines/understanding-immunotherapy

  4. Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/immunotherapy

  5. Nivolumab for recurrent squamous-cell carcinoma of the head and neck. The New England Journal of Medicine. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1602252

  6. Immunotherapy for head and neck cancer patients: shifting the balance. Immunotherapy. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Erik_Hooijberg/publication/233963070_Immunotherapy_for_head_and_neck_cancer_patients_Shifting_the_balance/links/00b7d5244550979772000000.pdf

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