This information is designed to help you understand biologic therapies and how they are used to treat patients with cancer. We ask that you read this and share it with your family or friends.
Your doctor and nurse will review this information with you and answer any questions you may have. Your concerns are important to us. Please do not hesitate to ask questions. It may be helpful to write down your questions as you think of them. You can use the space provided at the end of this booklet.
Understanding biologic therapy
Biologic therapies are used to treat cancer by helping the immune system function better. Other names for biologic therapies are biologic agents, biologicals, biological response modifier therapy, BRMs, or immunotherapy.
What is the immune system?
The immune system is your body’s defense system. It is made up of organs and cells throughout your body. The immune system defends your body against bacteria and viruses that can cause infection. It also helps find and destroy damaged and abnormal cells, like cancer cells.
The immune system is very complex and includes:
- White blood cells (WBCs) circulating in the bloodstream
- The tonsils and adenoids in the neck
- The thymus gland in the chest
- The spleen in the abdomen
- Some cells in the liver and bone marrow
- Lymph nodes, many of which are in the neck, underarm, abdomen, and groin
- The lymphatic vessels and fluids
All of these parts of the immune system work together to keep you healthy. When a bacteria, virus, or an abnormal cell is present, the immune system reacts. This reaction is called the immune response.
How white blood cells work
White blood cells (WBCs) are one of the most important parts of the immune system. There are different types of WBCs, and they all work together with other parts of the immune system to keep you healthy. Some WBCs directly attack bacteria, viruses, or abnormal cells (like cancer cells). Other WBCs work by releasing chemicals that destroy these invaders.
The WBCs are like a team. All of the players on the team play a different role, even though they have a common goal.
Biologic agents are very important to the white blood cell team. They act like the team coach. Biologic agents help the WBCs train to become stronger in the fight against bacteria, viruses, and abnormal cells. Biologic agents also coach the white blood cells to become smarter and to outplay these invaders. They can help the team win the fight against cancer.
Biologic agents are used to help the immune system boost the immune response to fight and destroy cancer cells. You may receive a single biologic agent or a combination of two or more agents at one time. You also may receive biologic agents with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery. Examples of biologic agents are:
- Interferon (IFN)
- Colony stimulating factors (CSF)
- Monoclonal antibodies (MoAb)
Sometimes cells from your blood are used as part of biologic therapy. These cells are removed from your body and are treated in the laboratory to make them stronger. Then the cells are returned to you to boost your immune system.
Biologic agents can be given to you in different ways. These may include needle injection into the skin or veins, or injection into an organ or cavity of the body using special procedures.
Some biologic agents have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Other biologic agents are given to patients enrolled in clinical research studies (clinical trials or protocols). A clinical research study measures the effects of new cancer treatments such as biologic therapy. The study results may be used as part of the FDA approval process. Your doctor and nurse will give you specific information about your treatment if you decide to participate in a clinical research study.
Side effects of biologic agents
Biologic agents are found naturally in your body. Different doses of these agents are given to treat cancer. When the dose is different from the amount normally present in your body, side effects may occur.
Side effects of biologic therapies vary from person to person. It is important to report your side effects to your doctor or nurse. The information that you report will allow your health care team to help make you more comfortable. Report any changes from the way that you normally feel.
Your doctor or nurse will give you information about possible side effects of your treatment. Some of the most common side effects of biologic therapies are:
- Flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, muscle and joint aches, headache)
- A decrease in or loss of appetite
- A decrease in your energy level
Side effects depend on many factors such as:
- The biologic agent(s) you are receiving
- The dose
- The way you receive the biological agents (the route)
- How often you receive treatment
- Your body’s reaction to the biologic agents
It is important to remember that side effects also may vary with each treatment. This means that you may have side effects after one treatment and not after another. Side effects may be more severe at one time than another.
You may not have any side effects at all. Sometimes patients think that the treatment is not working if they do not have side effects. This is not true. Side effects are not a good measure of the treatment’s success. It is important that you report new symptoms to your doctor or nurse so that they can evaluate possible side effects.
Depending on the biologic therapy that you receive, you may have blood tests and diagnostic tests, and you may spend several hours in the treatment area during and after your treatment. At times, you may need to stay in the hospital for all or part of your treatment, or you may be taught how to take your medicines at home. You may receive medicine to prevent or decrease some of your side effects. In some cases, your doctor may change or stop your treatment because of your side effects.
If you have questions
Most patients have many questions and concerns about biologic therapy. Talking openly with your doctor or nurse about your questions and concerns is a very important part of your health care plan. Write down questions and concerns that you and your loved ones may have and discuss them with your health care team. We can work together to help you and your loved ones be informed about biologic therapy.
Use this space to write down any questions you may have.
Contacting your nurse or doctor
- Clinical coordinator:____________________