Biological Therapy

Biological therapy is a treatment that uses drugs to improve the way your body’s immune system fights disease. Your immune system is your body’s natural defense against disease. A healthy and strong immune system can potentially detect the difference between healthy cells and cancer cells. Biological therapy attempts to strengthen and improve the immune system so that it can fight the cancer more effectively.

Interferon is the most common form of biological therapy. Interferons interfere with the division of cancer cells and can slow their growth. There are several types of interferons, and they are normally produced in the body. For the use of biological therapy, interferons are made in the laboratory. Other possible biological therapies include interleukin and monoclonal antibodies (MABs).

Most biological therapies are given by injection into a vein. They are frequently given in combination with chemotherapy or radiation therapy .

Possible side effects include:

  • Red, sore area where injection was given
  • Flu-like symptoms—fever, chills, gastrointestinal upset
  • Fatigue
  • Allergic reactions—cough, wheezing, skin rash
  • Confusion, disorientation, depression
  • Interleukin therapy is generally given in the hospital because it can cause severe changes in blood pressure.

Special Considerations

These treatments can cause extreme fatigue. It is important to get as much rest as possible when your body is fighting cancer. Talk with your doctor about how best you can minimize side effects and the discomforts that come with treatment.

To date, vaccines and other immunotherapies haven’t been effective in killing breast cancer. There is always hope that this may be effective in some patients, and scientists feel that the greatest benefit from vaccinations against breast cancer may be in those patients who have a predisposition to developing the disease (most likely related to a family history or a genetic mutation in a gene such as BRCA-1 or BRCA-2).

Hormonal Therapy

Hormonal therapy is designed to take advantage of the fact that many breast cancers are "estrogen sensitive." In other words, estrogen—a hormone—binds to the "estrogen sensitive" cells and stimulates them to grow and divide.

Anti-estrogen drugs such as tamoxifen prevents the binding of estrogen. This stops the cells from growing and, in doing so, prevents or delays breast cancer recurrence. Newer agents, such as the aromatase inhibitors (AIs), have been proven to be more effective that tamoxifen in both early and advanced stages of breast cancer. Examples include Arimidex, Aromasin, and Femara. In some circumstances, these agents are inappropriate, such as in premenopausal women or patients who have an inability to tolerate AIs. Tamoxifen is the standard therapy in these cases.

Some women who cannot tolerate tamoxifen, may be switched to one of the newer agents by their doctor; others may qualify for enrollment in research protocols to evaluate the relative effectiveness of promising new drugs. There is also evidence that tamoxifen may slightly raise the risk of later developing endometrial cancer .

Antihormone therapy to treat breast cancer will cause menopause, complete with hot flashes, night sweats, change in mental status, and infertility. Managing these side effects may be difficult for cancer patients because hormone replacement therapy (used to manage menopause in healthy women) is not an option because it would counteract the effects of the antihormone treatment. The AIs can also cause hot flashes and night sweats. For unknown reasons, about 10%-15% of patients receiving AIs develop severe muscle and joint pain.