Immunotherapy for Cancer: Monoclonal Antibodies (mAbs)

Immunotherapy is a way of treating disease using the body's immune system. This therapy is used in treating some cancers. One type of therapy is called monoclonal antibodies (mAbs). This therapy is most often used along with other cancer treatments. This sheet tells you more about mAbs and what to expect if they are part of your treatment plan.

How monoclonal antibodies work

Cancer cells are cells that have changed and become abnormal. Sometimes these cells produce large amounts of specific proteins on their surface. mAbs can be created in a lab to recognize these specific proteins. Once recognized, they can attach themselves to the cancer cells. The mAb may kill the cancer cell by itself, or it may get help from the body's immune system. Some mAbs carry specialized chemotherapy, toxins, or radiation directly to the cancer cells. Once the cancer cells have been killed, mAbs can be used to prevent them from coming back.

Possible side effects of monoclonal antibodies

mAbs can cause side effects. These side effects are most likely to occur at the time of treatment. Common side effects include:

  • Allergic reaction, such as rash, hives, or difficulty breathing

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Fatigue

  • Skin rash

  • Weakness

  • Dizziness

  • Low blood pressure

  • High blood pressure

Other side effects depend on the type of mAb being used. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about what side effects to expect and how to manage them.

How monoclonal antibodies are given

mAbs are given through a small tube called an IV that is put into a vein. It can be the vein in the arm or larger vein in the body. It allows the antibodies to be delivered directly into the bloodstream. The treatment may be done at a hospital, clinic, or healthcare provider's office. Each treatment may take as little as 30 minutes. Or it can take many hours depending on the mAb. How often the treatment is needed and how long the treatment will be given depends on the type of cancer you have and the mAb being given.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider if you have any of the following:

  • Fever of 100.4 ºF (38 ºC) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

  • Chest pain

  • Trouble breathing, wheezing

  • Swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat

  • Rash or hives

  • Ongoing fatigue

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

  • Uncontrolled nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea that doesn't improve over time

  • Any new symptom, or one that causes concern

Monitoring your progress

During the course of your treatment, you'll have routine visits with your healthcare provider. At these visits, your healthcare provider checks your health and response to the treatment. After treatment ends, you and your healthcare provider will discuss your treatment results. You'll also discuss whether you need additional cancer treatments.