Biological therapy is a treatment that uses substances normally produced by the body to treat cancer. A healthy and strong immune system can potentially detect the difference between healthy cells and cancer cells and destroy them. Biological therapy uses higher amounts of these substances made by the immune system to fight the cancer more effectively. Interferon is the most common form of biological therapy. There are several types of interferons that are manufactured. They interfere with the division of cancer cells and can slow their growth. Interleukins boost parts of the immune system to fight cancer.
Targeted (biologic response modifier) therapy affects specific characteristics of cancer cells, such as blood vessel growth or response to body substances. Monoclonal antibodies (MABs), such as trastuzumab, bevacizumab, or lapatinib modify the body's immune system to treat cancer. MAB's block specific receptors of substances that help the tumor grow.
These newer therapies have shown great promise, but pose some medical risks. Discuss them with your doctor.
Possible side effects include:
These treatments can cause extreme fatigue. It is important to get as much rest as possible when your body is fighting cancer. Talk with your doctor about how best you can minimize side effects and the discomforts that come with treatment.
To date, vaccines and other immunotherapies have not been effective in killing breast cancer. There is always hope that this may be effective in some patients, and scientists feel that the greatest benefit from vaccinations against breast cancer may be in those patients who have a predisposition to developing the disease (most likely related to a family history or a genetic mutation in a gene such as BRCA-1 or BRCA-2).
Hormonal therapy is designed to take advantage of the fact that many breast cancers are estrogen-sensitive. In other words, the hormone estrogen binds to the estrogen-sensitive cells and stimulates them to grow and divide. Anti-estrogen drugs, like tamoxifen, prevent the binding of estrogen. This stops the cells from growing and, in doing so, prevents or delays breast cancer recurrence.
Newer agents, like aromatase inhibitors, may be more effective than tamoxifen in both early and advanced stages of breast cancer. Examples of aromatase inhibitors include:
In some cases, these agents are inappropriate, as in women who are premenopausal or who cannot tolerate aromatase inhibitors. Tamoxifen may be used instead of a newer agent. There is another type of hormonal therapy drugs called luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH) agonists, which works by blocking how much estrogen the body makes. LHRH agonists may reduce the risk of cancer recurrence in premenopausal women who have early stage breast cancer. In some cases, it is used along with tamoxifen.
Hormonal therapy to treat breast cancer will cause menopause, including hot flashes, night sweats, change in mental status, and infertility. Managing these side effects may be difficult because hormone replacement therapy, which is used to manage menopause in healthy women, is not an option. It would counteract the effects of the anti-estrogen agents.
In addition to menopausal symptoms, other side effects can occur, such as:
Make sure to talk to your doctor about all medications you are taking. Some medications, when mixed, can cause problems. For example, when tamoxifen and certain antidepressants are taken together, this may increase the risk of death from breast cancer.
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Last reviewed January 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.