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Side effects can occur with any type of treatment for melanoma, but not everyone has them or experiences them in the same way. Side effects of biological therapy will depend mainly on:
Side effects can happen any time during, immediately after, or a few days or weeks after biological therapy. Most side effects go away after biological therapy is finished. Late side effects can occur months or years after biological therapy. Some side effects may last a long time or be permanent.
It is important to report side effects to the healthcare team. Doctors may also grade (measure) how severe certain side effects are. Sometimes biological therapy needs to be adjusted if side effects are severe.
Only the main side effects shared by most biological therapies are mentioned here. Some people may experience all, some or none of these side effects. Others may experience different side effects.
Flu-like symptoms are a common side effect of biological therapy. Chills or fever are common during infusion of the first treatment. Flu-like symptoms may also occur shortly after treatment. Symptoms include:
Giving the injection before bedtime and taking other medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), can help reduce these side effects and allow some people to sleep through them. Flu-like symptoms usually go away with continued therapy, once the body gets used to the drug. Check with the doctor or healthcare team if these symptoms do not go away or are bothersome.
Diarrhea is an increase in the number and looseness of stools. It occurs because biological therapy may affect the cells that line the gastrointestinal tract. Many factors increase the risk of diarrhea, including the dose of biological therapy.
A skin rash can occur with biological therapy. The skin may be red, dry and itchy. Using a moisturizer recommended by the healthcare team can help relieve the rash. Protect the skin by staying out of the sun. If going outside, use sunscreen and wear a hat, long-sleeved shirts and pants.
Fatigue or drowsiness is a common, temporary problem that can occur with biological therapies. It is often related to the dose of drug given and often goes along with flu-like symptoms.
Some biological therapies can cause nausea and vomiting in the first few days after treatment. The healthcare team may give medications before treatment to prevent nausea and vomiting.
Nausea and vomiting, fatigue or a buildup of waste products as cancer cells die can cause loss of appetite. This can lead to weight loss and malnutrition. Maintaining good nutrition during and after biological therapy is important to help a person recover from treatment.
A headache is a common side effect of biological therapy for melanoma. The healthcare team may recommend mild pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), to relieve a headache. Any headache that does not improve with medication, or dizziness with the headache, should be reported to the doctor.
A person’s blood pressure may be lowered. This is not a common side effect of biological therapy, but it can occur with certain drugs (such as interleukin-2). Blood pressure is monitored, especially when biological therapy is first started. Getting up slowly may help to prevent dizziness. Dizziness that occurs when a person is standing should be reported to the doctor.
Note: Other side effects may occur. For more detailed information on specific drugs, go to sources of drug information.
The Canadian Cancer Society is actively lobbying the federal government to establish a national caregivers strategy to ensure there is more financial support for this important group of people.