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Understanding Cancer Vaccines

Vaccines are mainly used to help prevent you from getting a certain illness or disease. New vaccines are being researched and developed to work against cancer. Currently, there are 3 anti-cancer vaccines. One is used to prevent cervical cancer. Another prevents hepatitis B (HBV) infection, which can lead to liver cancer. The third is used to treat prostate cancer.

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 designed to attack harmful or foreign substances that enter the body. Each antibody is specific to a substance. It recognizes and attacks only that substance. There are different 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 encourage the body to make antibodies. Once these antibodies are made, the body is prepared to fight off the substance. This protects the body against certain infections and diseases. Vaccines are often given as shots. Common vaccines include those against mumps, measles, and the flu. Researchers are now working on making vaccines 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 vaccine has been made to help prevent human papilloma virus (HPV). This virus can cause cervical cancer.

  • Treatment vaccines are given to a person who has cancer. Their focus is to help the immune system detect cancer cells and destroy them. This may help keep cancer cells from growing and spreading. It may also stop cancer from coming back. New treatment vaccines may help treat prostate cancer.

Possible side effects of cancer vaccines

Cancer vaccines may cause side effects. These may include:

  • Problems at the injection site (bleeding, infection, redness, pain, swelling)

  • Itching or rash

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Fatigue (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 being given. Your doctor can tell you more about what side effects to expect and how to manage 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,

Online Medical Reviewer: Fetterman, Anne, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Gersten, Todd, MD
Last Review Date: 12/30/2015
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