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Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML): Immunotherapy

What is immunotherapy? 

Immunotherapy is a treatment that affects the immune system. It can boost your body's immune system. Or it uses synthetic versions of normal parts of the immune system to fight cancer. It’s also called biological therapy. The immune system fights infection by killing germs. And in the same way, it can also destroy cancer cells. The therapy is done with medicine called interferon.

When is immunotherapy used to treat CML?

Immunotherapy is no longer the first treatment choice for chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). This is because targeted therapy with medicines works so well for CML.

The treatment may be used if your CML is in the chronic phase and is not responding to targeted medicines. Immunotherapy may then be done with a medicine called interferon alpha. This medicine may kill leukemia cells or help keep them under control. The goal is to destroy as many leukemia cells as possible.

The treatment is not as useful for CML in the accelerated or blast phase. When it is used, remission doesn’t last as long. Remission is when there are no more signs of the disease.                                                                                                                                                                               

How is immunotherapy given?

You'll most likely get a daily injection of interferon under your skin. You can get this as an outpatient at a hospital, clinic, or doctor's office. Or you may learn how to give it to yourself at home. 

If you take interferon, you may need it for a long time. It's common to take it for several years, as long as it is working and the side effects aren't too severe.

Possible side effects of immunotherapy

Side effects of interferon can include: 

  • Flu-like symptoms

  • Tiredness

  • Muscle aches

  • Bone pain

  • Fever

  • Nausea

  • Problems with thinking

  • Headaches

  • Low levels of blood cells

Talk with your healthcare team about ways to ease these side effects. Changing your dose of interferon may help. Some people may need to stop treatment because of side effects. But with proper management, most people can tolerate this treatment. Side effects usually go away shortly after treatment ends.

Working with your healthcare provider 

It's important to know which medicines you're taking. Write your medicines down, ask your healthcare team how they work, and what side effects they might have.

Talk with your healthcare providers about what signs to look for, and when to call them. Make sure you know what number to call with questions, even on evenings and weekends.

It may be helpful to keep a diary of your side effects. Write down physical, thinking, and emotional changes. A written list will make it easier for you to remember your questions when you go to your appointments. It will also make it easier for you to work with your medical team to make a plan to manage your side effects.

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/30/2015
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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