Immunotherapy versus Chemotherapy: Key Differences and Similarities


Cancer is mostly treated through either chemotherapy or immunotherapy. Despite treating the same disease, both intervention methods differ greatly from one another. That said, both treatment options restrict cancer cells from growing any further through the use of drugs.

Immunotherapy versus Chemotherapy

Immunotherapy increases the body's ability to fight cancerous cells. White blood cells and lymphatic system tissues, like bone marrow, make up the immune system. They're responsible for preventing and treating diseases. In comparison, chemotherapy works directly on cancer cells to prevent them from regenerating.

It is possible that your healthcare advisors may recommend both treatment options simultaneously, or in conjunction with other forms of cancer treatment.

So, let's now examine the similarities and differences between chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy: What is it?

A cancer cell is a cell that replicates uncontrollably. The immune system eliminates abnormal cells, but cells of certain cancers can evade the body's defenses.

Cells that cause cancer escape the body's immune system by:

• Being genetically altered to make them less detectable to the immune system

• The use of immune system-suppressing proteins

• Interfering with the immunity by changing cells around the tumor

Immunotherapy drugs help your body fight and kill cancer cells. Immunotherapy targets cancer cells by generating specific T cells, which are cells of the immune system that fight infections and cancer cells.

Immunotherapy research continues to grow, and experts believe that a breakthrough in cancer treatment is possible. Immunotherapy, chemotherapy, medications, and radiation therapies can even effectively treat rare cancers like mesothelioma. So, if you or a loved one near you has been exposed to asbestos—mesothelioma-causing agent found in workplaces—then you should consider pursuing immunotherapy on your doctor’s discretion. 

If you are struggling to find the means to pursue treatment for mesothelioma, you can refer to a mesothelioma law firm, which can guide you on how to pursue a claim for compensation against the employers. 

Let's now look at the two therapies in detail, and how they work in treating cancer. Immunotherapy medications are given in the form of capsules, IV therapy, or cream. As of yet, immunotherapy isn't as widely used as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery in treating cancers.

Immunotherapy drug types

There are several categories of immunotherapy drugs based on how they affect the immune system:

Immune checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs inhibit the immune checkpoints. Checkpoints in the immune system prevent the body from becoming overly aggressive.

T-cell transplantation. T cells become more capable of recognizing and attacking cancer cells when treated this way.

Immunoglobulin monoclonal. Proteins called monoclonal antibodies attach to and mark cancer cells so that the immune system can detect them.

Vaccines for treatment. Vaccines for cancer treatment can help your body fight cancer cells by boosting your immunity.

Immune system modulators. In general, immune system modulators boost the immune system or promote a specific part of it.

What does chemotherapy mean?

The word "chemo" refers to the use of drugs that directly destroy cancer cells. In addition to targeting fast-growing tumors, chemotherapy also slows down the rapid division of cells throughout the body. 

One can use chemotherapy alone or in combination with immunotherapy surgery or radiation. Chemical agents are used in chemotherapy to prevent cancer cells from dividing. Chemotherapy drugs have been used in treating cancers since the 1940s.

In order to treat cancer, chemotherapy treatment will aim to:

• Get the cancer growth under control

• Increase the odds that cancer will not spread or return

• Shrink the tumors 

• Lessen symptoms

There are several ways to administer chemotherapy drugs, including:

• Orally

• IV Therapy

• Injections

• Brain-spinal cord fluid

• Indirectly into an artery

• Through the abdominal cavity

• Topically

Chemotherapy treats cancer in a variety of ways. There are, however, certain side effects of using chemotherapy drugs, including damage to healthy cells, nausea, and hair loss.

The types of chemotherapy medications

Cancer patients can choose from 150 different chemotherapy drugs. Your doctor will choose one based on the following factors:

Health and age

Type of the cancer

The cancer’s progression 

Prior history of chemotherapy treatment

Chemotherapy drugs work differently, and some are better for certain types of cancer than others.

Comparing and contrasting the two therapies, what are their similarities and differences?

Immunotherapy and chemotherapy are similar in many ways. Both are drug therapies that attempt to destroy cancer cells or restrict its growth. They are effective in treating a wide range of cancer types.

Though these treatments have a similar goal, the way they destroy cancer cells differs. Cancer cells in immunotherapy are killed off by enhancing the body’s natural immunity. In chemotherapy, the cancer cells are directly barred from replicating through the use of drugs.

How long till you see results 

Chemotherapy treatment once started can shrink the tumor faster than immunotherapy. However, once the patient has been weaned off the drugs, chemotherapy stops working altogether. Immunotherapy, on the other hand, may stimulate your body's immune system to fight the cancer for longer and even after the treatment has been stopped. 

Side effects

There are potential side effects associated with both types of treatment options. Although chemotherapy kills off cancer cells primarily, it can also inadvertently damage rapid cell division in even the healthy cells of the body, such as those in your blood, skin, hair, and intestines.

In addition to nausea, hair loss, and mouth sores, damage to the healthy cells can cause you to feel the potential side effects. Tiredness is the most common side effect of chemotherapy.

Overactivation of immune cells can lead to many immunotherapy side effects. Some mild side effects may include flu-like symptoms, nausea, or allergic reactions at the injection site. The immune system may start attacking the internal organs in more serious cases.


A person's cancer type, for how long they need treatment, and how far their cancer has spread determine the cost for chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

In 2015, immunotherapy cost an average of $228,504 versus chemotherapy costing $140,970. In 2016, the average cost of immunotherapy was $202,202 and the average cost of chemotherapy was $147,801. So, as far as cost is concerned, chemo is relatively cheaper.

Which one is more effective?

Cancer can be effectively treated with both immunotherapy and chemotherapy. It is not necessary to choose one over the other. Treatment for cancer depends on several factors, such as its location and the progression achieved. 

Your doctor can give you proper guidance on which treatment option to pursue. The doctor can explain the benefits and disadvantages of each type of treatment, and how they can be most effectively incorporated into a holistic treatment plan.

Bottom Line

Simply put, immunotherapy and chemotherapy are two types of drug therapies used to treat cancer. Immunotherapy helps the body's immune system fight cancer by boosting its ability to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy hinders the growth of cancer cells directly. Cancer can be effectively treated with both types of treatments. Both treatment options can also be combined with other cancer therapies. 


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