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Getting biological therapy

Each cancer is different, so each treatment plan is different. The healthcare team will estimate how often and for how long biological therapy will be given.

Preparing for biological therapy

Healthcare teams assess people with cancer to see if they meet the criteria for treatment with biological therapy. The tests done depend on the biological therapy that will be used. Tests may include:

  • blood tests to check blood counts
  • cell and tissue studies to look for certain proteins or substances on the surface of cells

When getting biological therapy

Some people get biological therapies as an outpatient. Other people may be admitted to the hospital for their treatment. How it is given depends on the type and dose of biological therapy being used and the person’s overall health.

The route (how the biological therapy is given), dose and length of treatment vary with the:

  • type of cancer being treated
  • type of biological therapy drug used
  • person’s response to treatment


Most biological therapies are made up of proteins (cytokinescytokinesA substance made by cells of the immune system. Cytokines allow immune system cells to communicate with each other and thus help carry out the body’s immune response (the immune system’s reaction to the presence of foreign substances in the body).). They are usually given by injection because chemicals in the stomach can destroy these proteins when they are given by mouth (orally).

The biological therapy may be given by:

  • subcutaneous injection (into the fatty tissue under the skin)
    • Examples of biological therapies given by subcutaneous injection include interferon alfa (Intron A, Wellferon), epoetin alfa (Eprex, erythropoietin), filgrastim (Neupogen).
    • After the first few doses, some people are taught to give themselves their own injections.
  • intramuscular (IM) injection (into the muscle below the fatty tissue)
    • Examples of biological therapies given by IM injection include prophylactic vaccines, such as human papillomarvirus (HPV) vaccines (Gardasil and Cervarix).
  • intravenous (IV) injection (into the vein)
    • Examples of biological therapies given by IV injection include trastuzumab (Herceptin) and rituximab (Rituxan).
  • intravesical injection (through a tube into the bladder)
    • Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine is given by intravesical injection.

Bladder instillation

Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine is given by bladder instillation (or intravesical injection). A tube (catheter) is inserted through the urethra and into the bladder. The vaccine is slowly given through the tube into the bladder.

Biological therapy is often used along with other types of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. It is sometimes used alone. Occasionally, a combination of biological therapies may be used.

For more detailed information on specific drugs, go to sources of drug information

After biological therapy

Recovery after biological therapy depends on the type of therapy used, the person’s overall health and how well they tolerate the therapy and side effects.

Follow-up after biological therapy is tailored for the individual. How often follow-up appointments are scheduled varies with the type of cancer. Follow-up appointments are usually scheduled to:

  • see how the cancer responds to biological therapy
  • discuss ways of lessening and treating side effects, if they occur
  • discuss further treatment options, if needed

Follow-up tests may be done after biological therapy. The type of tests will depend on the type of cancer treated and may include:

  • blood tests
  • tumour marker tests
  • imaging tests


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