HealthSheets™


Understanding Cancer Vaccines

Vaccines are mainly used to help prevent you from getting a certain illness or disease. New vaccines are being developed to work against cancer. Some of the vaccines work against the viruses that can lead to the growth of certain cancers. Other new vaccines are used to boost the immune system against a tumor that has already grown.

How vaccines work

The immune system is the body’s defense against disease, infection, and cancer cells. One branch of the system makes special proteins called antibodies. These proteins are made to attack harmful or foreign substances that enter the body. Each antibody is set to a certain substance. It recognizes and attacks only that substance.

There are many types of vaccines. Most work by using a weakened version of a bacteria or virus to stimulate the immune system. This isn’t enough to make a person sick. But it is enough to cause the body to make antibodies. Other vaccines use inactivated or dead parts of viruses and bacteria to cause an immune response. Once these antibodies are made, the body is ready to fight off the substance. This protects the body against certain infections and diseases.

Vaccines are often given as shots. There are many common vaccines for both children and adults. Researchers are now working on making vaccines to help treat certain types of cancer and to protect the body against cancer.

Types of cancer vaccines

There are two types of cancer vaccines:

  • Preventive vaccines help protect a healthy person from getting cancer. They target certain types of infection that can lead to cancer. For instance, a shot has been made against the human papilloma virus (HPV). This virus can cause cervical cancer. Another vaccine stops hepatitis B (HBV) infection. HBV can lead to liver cancer.

  • Treatment vaccines are given to a person who has cancer. They help the immune system spot cancer cells and kill them. This may help keep cancer cells from growing and spreading. It may also stop cancer from coming back. There is one approved vaccine that may help treat advanced prostate cancer. But it does not prevent or cure the cancer. Many other treatment vaccines are still in early research stages for other types of cancer.

Possible side effects of cancer vaccines

Cancer vaccines may cause side effects, such as:

  • Problems at the place of a shot (bleeding, infection, redness, pain, swelling)

  • Itching or rash

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Tiredness

  • Muscle aches

  • Weakness

  • Fainting

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Problems breathing

  • Low blood pressure

Other side effects may occur. These depend on the type of vaccine you get. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about what side effects to expect and how to handle them.

Learn about clinical trials

Clinical trials are a way to test new treatments before they are put on the market. A number of vaccines for cancer are now in trials. To learn more, go to:

National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov/clinicaltrials

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