Vaccines, also called vaccinations, are medicines that help the body fight disease. They can 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 will not work.

There are 2 types of cancer prevention vaccines

HPV vaccine. The vaccine protects against the human papillomavirus (HPV). If the virus is long-lasting, it can cause some types of cancer. The FDA has approved HPV vaccines to prevent:

  • Cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancer
  • Anal cancer
  • Genital warts

HPV can also cause other cancers the FDA has not approved the vaccine for, such as oral cancer.

Hepatitis B vaccine. This vaccine prevents hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection. Long-lasting infection with HBV can cause liver cancer.

Talk with your health care team about whether you should be vaccinated against HPV and/or HBV.

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 treatments have ended
  • Stop a tumor from growing or spreading

How a cancer treatment vaccine works

Antigens are substances on the surface of cells that are not normally part of the body. The immune system attacks the antigens, usually getting rid of them. This leaves the immune system with a “memory” that helps it respond to those antigens in the future.
Cancer treatment vaccines boost the immune system's ability to recognize and destroy antigens. Often, cancer cells have certain molecules called cancer-specific antigens on their surface that healthy cells do not have. When these molecules are given to a person, the molecules act as antigens. They stimulate the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells that have these molecules on their surface. Most cancer vaccines also contain adjuvants, which are substances that may help strengthen the immune response.
Some cancer vaccines are made for individual patients. These types of vaccines are produced from the person's tumor sample. This means that surgery is needed to get a large enough sample of the tumor to create the vaccine. Other cancer vaccines target specific cancer antigens and are given to people whose tumors have those antigens on the surface of the tumor cells.