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.
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 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 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:
- drowsiness and fatigue
- flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, muscle and joint aches or pains, headache, nausea and vomiting or loss of appetite
- skin rash
- nerve pain, including peripheral neuropathy
- blood clots
- low blood cell counts
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
A disorder of the peripheral nerves (nerves outside the brain and spinal cord) that causes pain, numbness, tingling, burning, swelling, muscle weakness and loss of reflexes in different parts of the body.
Peripheral neuropathy may be caused by physical injury, infection, toxic substances or disease (such as cancer, diabetes, kidney failure or malnutrition). It can also be a side effect of some cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
What’s the lifetime risk of getting cancer?
The latest Canadian Cancer Statistics report shows about half of Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.