Vaccines, also called vaccinations, are medicines that help the body fight disease. They help train the immune system to recognize and destroy harmful substances. There are 2 types of cancer vaccines:
- Prevention vaccines
- Treatment vaccines
Cancer prevention vaccines
Doctors give prevention vaccines to healthy people to keep certain cancers from developing. Like vaccines for the chicken pox or the flu, they protect the body from viruses that can cause disease. A person has to get the vaccine before the virus infects him or her. Otherwise, the vaccine won’t work.
There are 2 types of cancer prevention vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
- HPV vaccine. The vaccine protects against the human papillomavirus (HPV). If the virus is long-lasting, it can cause some types of cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved HPV vaccines to prevent:
- Cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancer
- Anal cancer
- Genital warts
HPV can also cause other cancers the FDA hasn’t approved the vaccine for, such as oral cancer.
- Hepatitis B vaccine. The vaccine prevents hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection. Long-lasting infection with HBV can cause liver cancer.
Talk with your doctor about whether you should be vaccinated against HPV and/or HBV.
Cancer treatment vaccines
Cancer treatment vaccines, also called therapeutic vaccines, are a type of immunotherapy. The vaccines work to boost the body’s natural defenses to fight a cancer. Doctors give treatment vaccines to people already diagnosed with cancer. The vaccines may:
- Prevent the cancer from coming back
- Destroy any cancer cells still in the body after other treatment
- Stop a tumor from growing or spreading
Dr. Stegall’s Comments: When people refer to “cancer vaccines,” it is not always clear what they mean. As this article nicely summarizes, vaccines can either be used for prevention or treatment of cancer. We are still very early in our understanding of treatment vaccines, and we need more clinical studies before they become mainstream. There are some clinics outside the United States who use vaccines for the treatment of cancer, and in my experience the jury is still out as to whether or not they work.