Immunotherapy Can Treat Many Cancer Types
Cancer treatment is never easy. Between appointments, medications and side effects, there’s a lot to navigate. Immunotherapy, also called immuno-oncology, offers an approach that is promising for many types of cancer. But what exactly is this treatment and how do you know if it's right for you?
How Immunotherapy Works
Called a biological therapy, immunotherapy is a form of cancer treatment that harnesses the body’s own immune system to prevent, control and eliminate cancerous cells. Unlike traditional chemotherapy, which seeks to kill the cancer cells directly, immunotherapy options include:
● Checkpoint inhibitors that target immune checkpoint pathways. These inhibitors reactivate the body’s T cells, helping them enter the circulatory and cellular environments of the tumor. They identify cancer cells and destroy them.
● Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules that act as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system's attack on cells.
● Adoptive cell therapy involves removing a patient’s T cells, genetically modifying them to strengthen their ability to attack and kill cancer cells, then reintroducing them into the immune system to trigger an immune response.
● Therapeutic vaccines trigger an immune response in the body against tumor-specific antigens.
How Treatment Is Administered
As with all medical treatments, how immunotherapy is given to patients is based on the specific cancer, its staging and the individual’s needs. The four primary methods oncologists currently use include:
● Intravenous (IV) - administered directly into the bloodstream through a vein
● Oral - pills or capsules that are swallowed
● Topical - cream rubbed onto the skin
● Intravesical - delivered directly into the bladder
Benefits and Challenges of Immunotherapy
Immunotherapy is still a relatively new option for cancer patients, and innovative treatments are tested and approved regularly. The benefits appear to outweigh the challenges, but there are some key issues to consider.
You might still need chemo or other treatments. Although immunotherapy can be favored as the primary care route for some forms of cancer, it is more often used along with other traditional treatments — such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy and stem cell (bone marrow) transplant — depending on the diagnosis.
Side effects are generally less severe. Because treatment focuses on the immune system, immunotherapy allows for a more targeted approach with side effects generally the result of overstimulation (or misdirection) of the body’s natural immune response. These side effects are generally less acute than those resulting from chemotherapy or radiation and easier for your medical team to manage.
Not all cancers respond to immunotherapy. The list of cancers that see positive results from immunotherapy is growing and includes bladder, breast, brain and lung cancers. The Cancer Research Institute maintains this list of immunotherapies by cancer type. Not all forms have shown to respond to treatment and the success rate can vary. But immunotherapy can train the immune system to remember harmful cancer cells and this “immunomemory” may result in longer-lasting remissions.
If you are diagnosed with cancer, find comfort in knowing that the medical field continues to pioneer new treatment methods. Speak to your oncologist to find out if there is a clinical trial or FDA approved solution available and then work with your care team to chart a course that’s best for you.
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