Immunotherapy factsheet


The immune system is made up of cells, tissues and organs in the body that work to:

  • fight germs, illness and infection
  • heal injuries and recover from sickness
  • recognise and remove dead, damaged or abnormal cells.

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps a person's immune system destroy or slow the growth of cancer cells. This treatment may also help the immune system improve how it fights cancer cells.  

Immunotherapy is usually given alongside other types of cancer treatment, including:

Immunotherapy is generally only used to treat specific types of cancer, including:

It is not generally used as a first-line treatment for cancer in children but may be looked at if general cancer treatments are not working well. 

 Preparing for treatment

Immunotherapy can work by improving the immune system's ability to fight cancer and removing any barriers stopping the immune system from attacking cancer properly.

There are many different kinds of immunotherapies, each working differently.

Some ways that immunotherapies work include:

  • substances that attach to cancer cells and tell the immune system to destroy them
  • blocking cancer cells and slowing their growth
  • carrying chemotherapy or radiotherapy directly to the cancer cells
  • exposing cancer cells that are hidden from the immune system
  • stimulating the immune system and boosting the ability to attack cancer cells
  • using viruses to trigger an immune system response.

Your child's treating team will: 

  • discuss immunotherapy options and whether it is suitable for your child’s cancer treatment
  • decide which type of immunotherapy to use
  • order tests and checks to make sure your child is healthy enough for treatment.

During treatment

Immunotherapy is usually an outpatient treatment. Your child will visit the hospital for treatment and go home afterwards.

The type of immunotherapy given will depend on the type of cancer being treated and the type of immunotherapy used.

Immunotherapy can be given by:

  • intravenous (IV) cannula - a thin tube is inserted into the vein
  • oral or by mouth – tablets, capsules or liquids that are swallowed 
  • topical or on the skin – creams rubbed into the skin. 

During immunotherapy, your child will have regular check-ups that include: 

  • talking about how they feel during treatment
  • physical examinations
  • blood tests
  • scans to measure the tumour.

Side effects

Common side effects from immunotherapy can include: 

  • fever  
  • sleepiness  
  • nausea and vomiting 
  • muscle aches 
  • skin rashes 
  • shortness of breath 
  • headaches 
  • changes to hormones
  • inflammation, redness and swelling. 

Side effects from immunotherapy are caused by the immune system. They are not always a sign that the cancer is responding to treatment. 

Children who have only had mild side effects from immunotherapy have still seen improvements in their cancer.  

Length of treatment

The length of immunotherapy treatment will depend on:

  • the type of cancer
  • type of immunotherapy used 
  • how your child's body reacts to treatment. 

Some types of immunotherapies are given in cycles, where treatment is followed by a rest period that lets your child's body recover.

Other types of immunotherapies can be given every day, week, or month. 

 After treatment

Children with cancer will have regular checkups with their doctors after treatment is finished.

This is to monitor:

  • how your child is recovering from treatment
  • whether the treatment worked
  • whether any further treatment is needed.

After the first few years, follow-up appointments will change to monitoring:

  • growth
  • development 
  • long-term or late side effects from treatment. 

There is often a delayed response to immunotherapy, so it can take time to know if the treatment has worked.

In some cases, the cancer will be stable. This means it does not grow but does not shrink or go away. Children with stable cancer can have a good quality of life.


When to see your doctor

Your child's treatment team will give you contact information for any questions or concerns about your child's health while at home between treatments. 

If your child has any of the following symptoms during treatment, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance or go to the emergency department:

  • difficulty breathing 
  • convulsions or seizures
  • signs of infection
  • fever
  • looking extremely unwell. 

Support for families

A cancer diagnosis can leave families and children feeling overwhelmed, scared, anxious, and upset. Practical and emotional support during and after treatment is essential and can come from: 

  • family
  • friends
  • healthcare professionals
  • specialised support services.

Speak to your child’s treatment team for information about support services.

Last updated Tuesday 19th March 2024


This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024