Atezolizumab is a type of immunotherapy drug. It is a treatment for a number of different types of cancer.
You pronounce atezolizumab as a-teh-zoh-liz-you-mab.
Depending on your situation you may have atezolizumab on its own or you might have it in combination with other drugs.
How does atezolizumab work?
Atezolizumab works by blocking a protein that stops the immune system from working properly and attacking cancer cells. It helps to make your immune system find and kill cancer cells.
How do you have atezolizumab?
You have atezolizumab as a drip into your bloodstream (intravenously).
The first time you have atezolizumab, you have it over an hour. If you don’t have a reaction to it you have your next infusions over 30 minutes.
Into your bloodstream
You might have treatment through a long plastic tube that goes into a large vein in your chest. The tube stays in place throughout the course of treatment. This can be a:
- central line
- PICC line
If you don't have a central line
You might have treatment through a thin short tube (a cannula) that goes into a vein in your arm each time you have treatment.
How often do you have atezolizumab?
Your treatment plan depends on your type of cancer.
You usually have it in cycles of treatment. A cycle means that you have Atezolizumab on its own or in combination with other cancer drugs, and then have some time with no treatment to allow your body to recover.
Your healthcare team will tell you more about this.
You have blood tests before and during your treatment. They check your levels of blood cells and other substances in the blood. They also check how well your liver and kidneys are working.
What are the side effects of atezolizumab?
Side effects can vary from person to person. They also depend on what other treatment you are having.
This treatment affects the immune system. This may cause inflammation in different parts of the body which can cause serious side effects. They could happen during treatment, or some months after treatment has finished. In some people, these side effects could be life threatening.
When to contact your team
Your doctor, pharmacist or nurse will go through the possible side effects. They will monitor you closely during treatment and check how you are at your appointments. Contact your advice line as soon as possible if:
you have severe side effects
your side effects aren’t getting any better
your side effects are getting worse
Early treatment can help manage side effects better.
Contact your healthcare team immediately if you have signs of infection, including a temperature above 37.5C or below 36C.
We haven't listed all the side effects here. Remember it is very unlikely that you will have all of these side effects, but you might have some of them at the same time.
Common side effects
These side effects happen in more than 10 in 100 people (more than 10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:
High temperature (fever)
If you get a high temperature, let your healthcare team know straight away. Ask them if you can take paracetamol to help lower your temperature.
Loss of appetite
You might lose your appetite for various reasons while having cancer treatment. Sickness, taste changes or tiredness can put you off food and drinks.
You may have difficulty breathing with wheezing and coughing. Let your healthcare team know straight away if this happens.
Tiredness and weakness (fatigue) can happen during and after treatment. Doing gentle exercises each day can keep your energy up. Don't push yourself, rest when you start to feel tired and ask others for help.
Diarrhoea and inflamed bowel
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have diarrhoea. Your doctor might give you anti diarrhoea medicine to take home with you after treatment. Eat less fibre, avoid raw fruits, fruit juice, cereals and vegetables, and drink plenty of liquid to replace the fluid lost.
Call your advice line straight away if you have 4 loose watery poos (stools) in 24 hours, diarrhoea at night, or it carries on for more than 3 days. Or if you can’t drink enough to replace the lost fluid. Also, call if you have blood or mucus in your poo, your poo looks darker than usual, or if you develop pain in your tummy (abdomen).
Feeling or being sick
Feeling or being sick is usually well controlled with anti sickness medicines. It might help to avoid fatty or fried foods, eat small meals and snacks and take regular sips of water. Relaxation techniques might also help.
It is important to take anti sickness medicines as prescribed even if you don’t feel sick. It is easier to prevent sickness rather than treat it once it has started.
You might notice skin changes, such as dryness, itching and rashes similar to acne on your face, neck and trunk.
Tell your doctor if you have any rashes or itching. Don't go swimming if you have a rash because the chlorine in the water can make it worse.
If your skin gets dry or itchy, using unperfumed moisturising cream may help. Check with your doctor or nurse before using any creams or lotions. Wear a high factor sun block if you’re going out in the sun.
Joint or back pain
You might have pain in your back or joints. Speak to your doctor or nurse about what painkillers you can take to help with this.
Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
Tell your doctor or nurse if you think you might have a urinary tract infection. You might find it difficult to pass urine, want to go with some urgency or are going more often. There may be pain or burning when you go. You may see blood in your urine, or your urine might smell bad or look cloudy.
Tell your healthcare team if you keep getting headaches. They can give you painkillers to help.
Occasional side effects
These side effects happen in between 1 and 10 out of every 100 people (between 1 and 10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:
- changes in your blood tests showing low levels of potassium and sodium
- low blood pressure
- inflammation of your liver or lungs
- changes to the way your thyroid gland works – it may make too much or not enough thyroid hormone. You may have regular blood tests to check this
- flu-like symptoms
- allergic reaction to the drug that can cause a rash, shortness of breath, redness or swelling of the face and dizziness
- your nose may feel blocked (nasal congestion)
- difficulty in swallowing
- pain in your tummy (abdomen)
- low platelets which means you may bruise and bleed easily
- pain in your muscles or bones (musculoskeletal pain)
- changes in blood sugar levels
- dry skin
Rare side effects
These side effects happen in fewer than 1 in 100 people (fewer than 1%). You might have one or more of them. They include:
- inflammation of your pancreas - you might not have any symptoms but changes may be picked up on a blood test
- your adrenal glands not making enough important hormones (cortisol and aldosterone)
- inflammation of the heart or brain
- the immune system attacking the nervous system (Guillain-Barre syndrome) - causing numbness, weakness and pain in the body. Go to A&E if you have any numbness or are unable to move
- a severe skin reaction that may start as tender red patches which leads to peeling or blistering of the skin. You might also feel feverish and your eyes may be more sensitive to light. This is serious and could be life threatening
- problems with your vision, including sore, red, painful eyes (uveitis)
Coping with side effects
We have more information about side effects and tips on how to cope with them.
What else do I need to know?
Other medicines, foods and drink
Cancer drugs can interact with medicines, herbal products, and some food and drinks. We are unable to list all the possible interactions that may happen. An example is grapefruit or grapefruit juice which can increase the side effects of certain drugs.
Tell your healthcare team about any medicines you are taking. This includes vitamins, herbal supplements and over the counter remedies. Also let them know about any other medical conditions or allergies you may have.
Pregnancy and contraception
This drug may harm a baby developing in the womb. It is important not to become pregnant while you are having treatment and for 5 months afterwards.
Talk to your doctor or nurse about effective contraception before starting treatment. Let them know straight away if you become pregnant while you're having treatment.
Don’t breastfeed during this treatment because the drug may come through into your breast milk.
It is not known whether this treatment affects fertility in people. Talk to your doctor before starting treatment if you think you may want to have a baby in the future.
Treatment for other conditions
If you are having tests or treatment for anything else, always mention your cancer treatment. For example, if you are visiting your dentist.
Don’t have immunisations with live vaccines while you’re having treatment and for up to 12 months afterwards. The length of time depends on the treatment you are having. Ask your doctor or pharmacist how long you should avoid live vaccinations.
In the UK, live vaccines include rubella, mumps, measles, BCG, yellow fever and one of the shingles vaccines called Zostavax.
You can have:
- other vaccines, but they might not give you as much protection as usual
- the flu vaccine (as an injection)
- the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine - talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the best time to have it in relation to your cancer treatment
Members of your household who are aged 5 years or over are also able to have the COVID-19 vaccine. This is to help lower your risk of getting COVID-19 while having cancer treatment and until your
Contact with others who have had immunisations - You can be in contact with other people who have had live vaccines as injections. Avoid close contact with people who have recently had live vaccines taken by mouth (oral vaccines) such as the oral typhoid vaccine. Sometimes people who have had the live shingles vaccine can get a shingles type rash. If this happens they should keep the area covered.
If your immune system is severely weakened, you should avoid contact with children who have had the flu vaccine as a nasal spray as this is a live vaccine. This is for 2 weeks following their vaccination.
Babies have the live rotavirus vaccine. The virus is in the baby’s poo for about 2 weeks and could make you ill if your immunity is low. Get someone else to change their nappies during this time if you can. If this isn't possible, wash your hands well after changing their nappy.
More information about this treatment
For further information about this treatment and possible side effects go to the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website. You can find the patient information leaflet on this website.
You can report any side effect you have to the Medicines Health and Regulatory Authority (MHRA) as part of their Yellow Card Scheme.