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Immunotherapy vs. Chemotherapy: What's the Difference?

Immunotherapy and chemotherapy are two commonly used cancer treatments. Both types of therapy involve the use of drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells. Although they have the same goal, the way they accomplish it is different.
  • Immunotherapy enhances your immune system’s ability to target cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy acts directly on cancer cells to keep them from replicating.

Your healthcare team may recommend both treatments at the same time or in addition to other cancer treatments such as radiation therapy or surgery.

immunotherapy for cancer

Keep reading as we examine the similarities and differences of immunotherapy versus chemotherapy.

Cancer cells are abnormal cells that replicate uncontrollably. Normally, your immune system destroys abnormal cells, but many types of cancer cells are able to hide from your immune system.

Cancer cells may be able to hide from your immune systemTrusted Source by:

  • having genetic changes that reduce their visibility
  • containing proteins that turn off your immune cells
  • changing cells around the tumor so that they interfere with your immune response.

Immunotherapy helps your immune system recognize and destroy cancer cells

Immunotherapy drugs help your immune system recognize cancer and destroy it. The ultimate goalTrusted Source of immunotherapy is to create a group of T cells that specifically target cancer. T cells are a special type of white blood cell that attacks foreign invaders.

Immunotherapy is a growing area of research. Many scientists are optimistic it could lead to breakthroughs in cancer treatment.

How immunotherapy drugs are delivered

You can take immune therapy drugs through an IV, capsules, or creams. Immunotherapy is used to treat a wide range of cancers but isn’t yet as widely used as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.

Types of immunotherapy drugs

Immunotherapy drugs can be divided into several categories depending on how they specifically target your immune system.

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs block immune checkpoints. Immune checkpoints are part of your natural immune response that keeps your immune system from being too aggressive.
  • T-cell transfer therapy. This type of treatment enhances the ability of your T cells to recognize and attack cancer cells.
  • Monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies are proteins that bind to cancer cells and mark them for your immune system.
  • Treatment vaccines. Treatment vaccines help boost your immune system’s response to cancer cells.
  • Immune system modulators. Immune system modulators either generally enhance your immune system or enhance a specific part of your immune system.

Chemotherapy is a chemical drug therapy that helps keep cancer cells from replicating. The first chemotherapy drugs were developed around the 1940sTrusted Source.

Chemotherapy helps stop cancer cells from replicating

Chemotherapy helps treat cancer by:

  • decreasing the number of cancer cells in your body
  • reducing the chances of the cancer spreading or returning
  • shrinking tumors
  • reducing your symptoms

How chemotherapy is delivered

Chemotherapy drugs can be administered in a number of ways, such as:

  • orally
  • through an IV
  • through injections
  • into the fluid between your brain and spinal cord
  • directly into an artery
  • directly into your abdominal cavity
  • topically

Chemotherapy is used to target a wide range of types of cancers. However, the chemicals in chemotherapy drugs can also damage healthy cells, which leads to common side effects like hair loss and nausea.

Types of chemotherapy drugs

There are at least 150Trusted Source chemotherapy drugs that can be used for treating cancer. The type of drug your doctor will use depends on such factors as:

  • your age and health
  • the type of cancer you have
  • how far it’s progressed
  • if you’ve previously received chemotherapy treatment

Each category of chemotherapy drug has its own mode of action, and some drugs work better for certain cancers. This article discusses the different categories of chemotherapy drugs and which types of cancers they’re typically used for.

Chemotherapy and immunotherapy are similar in many ways. Both are drug therapies that seek to destroy cancer cells and can be used to treat many different types of cancers.

Although they have a similar goal, the way these treatments destroy cancer cells differs. Immunotherapy seeks to enhance your immune system’s ability to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs directly impair a cancer cell’s ability to replicate.

Length of action

Chemotherapy stops working once the drugs are no longer administered. Immunotherapy can potentially stimulate your immune system to continue fighting cancer even after treatment has stopped.

When you first start treatment, chemotherapy has the potential to have an almost immediate effect on shrinking a tumor. Immunotherapy often takes longer to take effect.

Side effects

Both types of treatment can potentially cause mild and serious side effects.

Chemotherapy targets cells that rapidly divide, such as cancer cells, but it can also damage other cells in your body that rapidly divide such as hair, skin, blood, and intestinal cells.

Damage to these cells can lead to many potential side effects such as nauseahair loss, and mouth sores. The most common Trusted Sourceside effect of chemotherapy is fatigue.

Many immunotherapy side effects come from overactivation of your immune system. Mild side effects can include nausea, flu-like symptoms, or a reaction at the injection site. In more serious cases, it can cause your immune system to attack your organs.


The cost of chemotherapy and immunotherapy can vary widely based on factors such as how long you need treatment, what type of cancer you have, and how far your cancer has spread.

2020 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology sought to compare the average cost of checkpoint inhibitors — which is a type of immunotherapy — versus chemotherapy in patients dealing with lung cancer.

The researchers found the average cost of immunotherapy in 2015 was $228,504 versus $140,970 for chemotherapy. In 2016, the average cost was $202,202 for immunotherapy and $147,801 for chemotherapy.

Immunotherapy and chemotherapy both have the potential to be effective cancer treatments. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. The one that works best for treating your cancer depends on many factors such as where your cancer is and how far it has progressed.

Discuss with your doctor the best treatment option for your particular situation. Your doctor can explain the advantages and disadvantages of each treatment and explain how to best integrate them in a holistic treatment plan.

Chemotherapy and immunotherapy are two types of drug therapies used to treat cancer. The goal of immunotherapy is to boost the function of your immune system so that it can destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy directly inhibits the ability of cancer cells to replicate themselves.

Both types of treatment can be effective at treating cancer. They may be used together or combined with other cancer treatments. Discuss treatment options with your doctor to learn the best options for your situation.


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