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Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

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Biological therapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Biological therapy is sometimes used to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). It uses natural or artificial substances that change the way cells behave. Different types of biological therapies work in different ways. Some types kill, control or change how cancer cells behave. Other types strengthen the body’s immune system, control symptoms or lessen side effects of treatment. Biological therapy is also called biotherapy or biological response modifiers (BRMs).

You may have biological therapy to:

  • kill or slow the growth of lymphoma cells
  • strengthen your immune system
  • lower the risk that the cancer will come back (recur)

Your healthcare team will consider your personal needs to plan the drugs, doses and schedules of biological therapy. You may also receive other treatments.

Biological therapy drugs commonly used for NHL

The following biological therapy drugs may be used to treat certain types of NHL.

Interferon alfa

Interferons are proteins that the body makes to help fight infection or cancer. The type of interferon used to treat some types of NHL is called interferon alfa (Intron A, Wellferon). It may be used alone or combined with chemotherapy.

Interferon alfa is usually injected into tissue just under the skin (called subcutaneous injection). Sometimes it is injected into a muscle (called intramuscular injection).

Immunomodulatory drugs

Immunomodulatory drugs work by blocking the growth and division of cancer cells.

Thalidomide (Thalomid) is a drug that stops a tumour from developing new blood vessels (called an anti-angiogenesis drug). It is a capsule taken by mouth. It may be used alone or combined with other drugs to treat some types of NHL.

Lenalidomide (Revlimid) is a newer drug similar to thalidomide that may be used to treat some types of NHL. It is a capsule taken by mouth. The side effects of lenalidomide tend to be different and more severe than thalidomide.

Side effects

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for NHL, but everyone’s experience is different. Some people have many side effects. Other people have few or none at all.

Side effects can develop any time during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after biological therapy. Sometimes late side effects develop months or years after biological therapy. Most side effects go away on their own or can be treated, but some side effects may last a long time or become permanent.

Side effects of biological therapy will depend mainly on the type of drug, the dose and your overall health. Some common side effects of biological therapy drugs used for NHL are:

Pregnant women or women planning to become pregnant should not take thalidomide or lenalidomide. These drugs may cause severe birth defects.

Tell your healthcare team if you have these side effects or others you think might be from biological therapy. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Information about specific cancer drugs

Details on specific drugs change quite regularly. Find out more about sources of drug information and where to get details on specific drugs.

Questions to ask about biological therapy

Find out more about biological therapy. To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about biological therapy.

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