Immunotherapy uses a person’s immune system to fight cancer. It activates the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells. It is becoming a promising treatment option for cervical cancer.

A person may undergo immunotherapy alone or in combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery.

Although the efficacy of immunotherapy for cervical cancer is still under investigation, recent studies have shown encouraging results in preliminary trials, including in those with recurrent or metastatic cervical cancer.

This article explains how immunotherapy works for cervical cancer and what patients can expect during treatment.

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The immune system identifies and attacks foreign invaders such as viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells.

However, cancer cells can often evade the immune system’s detection by producing proteins that act as checkpoints. These checkpoints prevent the immune cells from recognizing and attacking the cancer cells.

Immunotherapy drugs, also known as checkpoint inhibitors, work by blocking these proteins and allowing the immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), a doctor may prescribe the PD-1 inhibitor pembrolizumab to treat cervical cancer.

PD-1 inhibitors block the PD-1 protein on the surface of immune cells, which cancer cells can manipulate to evade detection. By blocking PD-1, these inhibitors can allow immune cells to attack cancer cells.

Before administering pembrolizumab, a doctor may order a lab test to see if the cancer cells have a certain amount of the PD-L1 protein.

If enough of the PD-L1 is present, a doctor can use pembrolizumab alongside chemotherapy to treat cervical cancer that:

  • is not shrinking despite current treatment options
  • has returned
  • has spread to distant parts of the body

It can also treat cervical cancer that has returned or spread during, or after, chemotherapy.

Doctors usually administer immunotherapy intravenously in a doctor’s office or outpatient unit in a hospital. This means the immunotherapy is delivered directly into a vein.

A person will undergo immunotherapy for cervical cancer every 3–6 weeks.

Possible side effects of immunotherapy drugs include:

In some cases, immunotherapy may cause more severe side effects, such as:

The occurrence and severity of a person’s side effects can vary depending on the type of immunotherapy they receive.

People should discuss the potential side effects of their treatment with a doctor and report any new symptoms promptly.

Managing side effects

Those experiencing side effects from immunotherapy should consult their healthcare team about their symptoms and how to manage them.

Doctors can modify the person’s treatment plan or prescribe additional medications, such as steroids and immunosuppressants, to alleviate symptoms.

Lifestyle changes, such as getting enough rest, staying hydrated, and eating a balanced diet, can also help manage side effects and improve overall well-being during treatment.

Clinical trials have shown that immunotherapy can be effective for some people with advanced or recurrent cervical cancer who have not responded to standard treatments.

According to one 2021 study, those with persistent, recurrent, or metastatic cervical cancer had a higher survival rate after receiving immunotherapy compared to those who received a placebo. These people took pembrolizumab in combination with chemotherapy, with or without bevacizumab (Avastin).

In a separate study, researchers found that pembrolizumab was effective in a subgroup of people whose tumors expressed high levels of PD-L1.

These findings suggest that pembrolizumab may be a promising treatment option for those with advanced cervical cancer with limited treatment options.

Immunotherapy for cervical cancer can be expensive. However, financial assistance may be available through various organizations and programs.

Below is a list of resources that provide financial assistance for cancer treatment:

Below are some answers to common questions about treating cervical cancer.

What is the latest treatment option for cervical cancer?

In 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved pembrolizumab in combination with chemotherapy as a first-line treatment option for cervical cancer.

It can help to treat those who have tumors that release the protein PD-L1.

What is the most effective treatment option for cervical cancer?

Determining the most effective treatment for cervical cancer depends on various factors, including the stage and location of the cancer, the person’s age and overall health, and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Radiation, in combination with chemotherapy, is often the primary treatment for advanced cervical cancer. Surgery may also be an option for some patients with earlier-stage cervical cancer.

Immunotherapy, particularly checkpoint inhibitors such as pembrolizumab, has shown promising results as a treatment option for some patients with advanced or recurrent cervical cancer.

While further research is necessary to fully understand the potential of immunotherapy for cervical cancer, these findings offer hope for those with limited treatment options.