Salvage therapy is a term for any treatment you receive after standard treatments have failed. It can take on many forms depending on what condition you’re treating and your overall health.

Your salvage therapy could include medications, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and more. Clinical trials and experimental medications are also considered salvage therapy.

If your condition requires salvage therapy, your doctor will discuss with you exactly what it’ll look like in your situation.

Salvage therapy is also known as rescue therapy. Salvage therapy isn’t a specific treatment or medication. The term is used to describe treatments given to people who can’t tolerate or haven’t responded to other treatments.

Salvage therapy can take on a few different forms depending on the condition and the person.

Generally, salvage therapy consists of medications that are known to have more severe side effects than earlier treatments. Salvage therapy can also take the form of experimental medications, or those that are under scientific trial for a condition.

The term salvage therapy is primarily used to describe treatments for HIV and cancer. But the term can also be used to discuss a final line of defense against many progressive conditions.

For example, treatments for patients with end stage renal disease (ESRD) who are no longer responding to dialysis might also be referred to as salvage therapy.


In the case of HIV, the first-line therapy is antiretroviral medication. In some cases, the virus will come back despite the use of antiretrovirals. This is a sign that the virus has become resistant to the antiretroviral.

If antiretrovirals aren’t able to suppress this resistant form of the virus, salvage therapy is used. Salvage therapy for HIV will attempt to stop the spread of the resistant form of the virus.

For cancer

The first-line treatment for most types of cancer is chemotherapy. All chemotherapy is made from one or more drugs that have been shown to fight cancer. When standard chemotherapy isn’t working, salvage therapy can be used.

Salvage therapy for cancer usually includes chemotherapy that’s made up of different drugs than earlier rounds. The exact drugs used will depend on your specific situation.

Experimental medications that are still undergoing clinical trials can be used at this point. Doctors might try treatments that aren’t part of standard cancer regimens or might direct you to clinical trials that might help.

Salvage therapy can take many different forms. The salvage therapy you receive will depend on you, your condition, and your overall health.

For example, salvage therapy for an 80-year-old person with lymphoma and heart disease will look different than salvage therapy for a 25-year-old person with lymphoma and no other health conditions. A doctor will walk you through what salvage therapy will look like for you.

You might take new medications, or receive additional rounds of chemotherapy or radiation. Salvage therapy for cancer might even include surgery to remove a tumor that has spread or come back.

The side effects of salvage therapy will depend on the type of treatment you’re receiving.

There’s a wide array of salvage therapies that can be used, so there are many different side effects that may occur. For example, an experimental medication or surgery will have very different side effects and risks.

However, in most cases, you can expect to have more side effects than you did with earlier treatments. You might have more or severe post-treatment side effects and need additional recovery time after your treatment.

Your doctor will talk with you about what side effects to expect from your specific salvage therapy. It’s a good idea to be prepared to ask questions and make sure you understand all of the possible side effects and risks.

Tips for coping with salvage therapy treatment

It can be overwhelming and discouraging when your condition isn’t responding to treatment. It’s important to take the time to care for yourself and seek support. For example, it might help to:

  • Ensure you’re getting plenty of rest.
  • Follow any dietary recommendations your doctor has recommended for your condition.
  • Stock up on prepared meals or easy freezer meals so you have food on days you don’t feel your best.
  • Let family, friends, and other loved ones help by preparing meals, running errands, cleaning, or providing companionship.
  • Arrange for a ride to and from treatment, especially if you feel weak, nauseous, or dizzy afterward.
  • Join an online or in-person support group for your condition.
  • Ask your doctor, a nurse, or social worker about local support organizations or meetups.
  • Ask a social worker for helping setting up meals, rides, or anything else you need assistance with.
  • Talk with your doctor about if a referral for palliative care may be right for you. Palliative care can help you and your family focus on minimizing symptoms and discomfort, as well provide psychosocial and spiritual support.
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The outlook after salvage therapy depends on the condition that’s being treated, but 5-year survival rates after salvage therapy will always be lower than rates for your overall condition.

That’s because salvage therapy is given when other treatments have failed. When you receive salvage therapy, it means your condition is aggressive and difficult to treat.

However, that doesn’t mean that salvage therapy can’t be used to achieve remission or eliminate severe symptoms. But it does mean that salvage therapy is hard to predict and might not improve your condition.

Your doctor will talk with you about the likely outcomes in your situation. Keep in mind that salvage therapy can include clinical trials and experimental medications with unknown outcomes.

Salvage therapy is a broad term that’s used for any treatment given to someone whose condition hasn’t responded to first-line or standard treatments. You’re most likely to hear this term used for cancer or HIV treatment, but it can apply to any condition.

The exact salvage therapy you receive will depend on your condition and your overall health. Salvage therapies might include medications, radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery.

Your doctor will let you know the options for salvage therapy in your specific case, and will help you understand the risks and likely outcome of each option.