There are many treatment options available to cancer patients. Depending on your type of cancer, your oncologist might recommend chemotherapy or immunotherapy. These two treatments are often confused with each other because they both fall under medical oncology. But they are very different.

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What Is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy (chemo) is a treatment often used for cancer patients. Chemo drugs generally work by killing cancer cells directly and/or preventing cancer cells from multiplying. Doctors use chemo — either one drug or a combination of drugs — to treat the cancer, keep it from spreading, and/or slow tumor growth.

When people hear chemotherapy, they automatically think side effects will occur. While very common, side effects depend on the type of chemotherapy used and vary for each person. Because chemo targets cells of the body that divide quickly, it can also affect bone marrow (which makes both white and red blood cells), hair follicles, and the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. This leads to side effects such as:

  • Bone marrow suppression.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Fatigue.
  • Nausea/vomiting.
  • Temporary hair loss.

Chemotherapy can be used before surgery to shrink a tumor or after surgery to try to kill any remaining microscopic cancer cells.

Patients can receive chemo intravenously (IV) or by mouth. It can be given in the hospital, at an outpatient care center, a doctor’s office, and, sometimes, at home. Oncologists typically give chemotherapy in cycles, with a break between to allow the patient to rest and recover.

What Is Immunotherapy?

While chemotherapy fights the cancer directly, immunotherapy stimulates the immune system to work harder and fight the cancer.

“When patients receive chemotherapy for metastatic cancer, they must continue chemotherapy to have benefit,” says Moon Fenton, MD, a medical oncologist and hematologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Beaver.

“When chemotherapy is discontinued, the cancer usually recurs or grows back. However, many patients who respond to immunotherapy can continue to have a long duration of responses or remission – months to years – even after stopping treatment.”

There are different types of immunotherapy, including:

  • Adoptive cell therapy.
  • Cytokine therapy.
  • Monoclonal antibodies that target immune checkpoints.
  • Vaccines.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved some immunotherapy agents, others are available only in clinical trials.

Immunotherapy may be given as a single treatment. Or it may be combined with other treatments, including chemo, radiation, and surgery.

Oncologists or oncology nurses administer immunotherapy via an injection in the skin or directly into the tumor, or through an IV. Most immunotherapy can be given on an outpatient basis. For some types, you may need to be hospitalized for all or part of the treatment.

As with most treatments, immunotherapy comes with possible side effects, including:

  • Chills.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Fatigue
  • Fever.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Rash.
  • Skin irritation around the injection site.

Although chemotherapy and immunotherapy target and attack cancer cells differently, taking care of yourself can lessen their side effects and help you heal faster. Be sure to get enough rest, eat a healthy diet, exercise (with your doctor’s approval), quit smoking, and reduce alcohol use.

Social and emotional support also will help you get through treatment. And always talk to your cancer care team with questions or concerns about your health and well-being.

Find a UPMC Hillman Cancer Center near you.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.