Immunotherapy: Everything You Need to Know
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Being diagnosed with cancer is terrifying – there are many types of cancer, each with a different survival rate, and some cancers offer a better prognosis than others. That’s why figuring out a treatment plan is a crucial first step for anyone suffering from cancer.
For years, the most common treatment options have brought intense side effects that cause even more suffering in patients. Both chemotherapy and radiation are harsh, although effective. However, cancer treatments are changing, and there’s a new treatment option that offers new hope.
Immunotherapy is quickly becoming an effective, life-saving treatment for cancer. And it’s associated with fewer side effects for patients. Immunotherapy is approved by the FDA, but few cancer patients are using this treatment method, mainly because many aren’t aware of the opportunity to participate.
If you’re seeking a cancer treatment with fewer side effects yet is still effective, here’s why you need to know about immunotherapy.
How Immunotherapy Works
Immunotherapy is a broad term for treatment approaches that involve engineering your immune system to improve its effectiveness. In some cases, your own cells are reprogrammed to attack cancer cells.
The immune system identifies and combats harmful invaders. Although it may be efficient at driving out viruses and bacteria, it doesn’t always recognize cancer cells. Tumors can trick the immune system into thinking they aren’t foreign substances and therefore don’t need to be attacked.
The immune system is limited when it comes to fighting cancer cells on its own. It may not distinguish the tumors from healthy tissue or be strong enough to destroy the malignant cells. Immunotherapy can strengthen the immune system overall. It can also be used to reprogram antibodies so they target the harmful cells without damaging healthy tissue.
Immunotherapy vs. Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is one of the most common cancer treatments – it’s effective, it’s been proved over decades of use, and although it’s hard on the body, it can improve patients’ prognosis for decades.
As the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance¹ explains, chemotherapy is a chemical treatment. During a chemotherapy treatment, powerful medications are administered to kill cancerous cells. Systemic chemotherapy does not discriminate between healthy and harmful cells. As it destroys cancer, it can also damage healthy tissues. Because of this, it’s associated with a wider range of side effects.
Immunotherapy is quite different. During immunotherapy, malignant cells are directly targeted, leaving the rest of the body’s cells alone. Depending on the type of immunotherapy you receive, the treatment can either involve a series of injections or prescription drugs that either help the immune system recognize cancerous cells or utilize antibodies to attack specific cells.
Although immunotherapy may not work for all types of cancer, there are certain cancers that respond better to this treatment than chemotherapy, WebMD reports².
Types of Immunotherapy Treatments
Two primary types of immunotherapy, checkpoint inhibitors and car T-cell therapy, have been approved for treating certain cancers. As many six other types of immunotherapy are currently undergoing clinical trials, meaning there will be many more types to choose from in the future.
Here are the two FDA-approved immunology treatments:
These FDA-approved drugs can help combat kidney, melanoma, lung, bladder, head, and neck cancers as well as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. These medications work by helping the immune system attack cancer cells. To fight harmful cells while keeping healthy tissue intact, immune cells have certain molecules, or checkpoints, that must be turned on or off to activate the immune response. According to the American Cancer Society³, cancer cells can bind to certain checkpoint proteins, making them appear harmless. Checkpoint inhibitors prevent this bond and leave the cancer cells vulnerable to immune attack.
Car T-cell Therapy
This type of immunotherapy is an adoptive cell transfer therapy that’s currently used for blood cancers – but it’s also being studied for its use in treating breast and brain cancers. The National Cancer Institute⁴ explains that this treatment involves removing immune cells from a cancer patient’s blood. They’re adapted in a laboratory and reintroduced to the body with a receptor that’s better able to detect and combat cancer.
The following types of immunotherapy have not yet been approved, but are in clinical trials:
In this treatment, certain immune cells (called T-cells) are extracted from the tumor itself. The T-cells are then isolated and increased in number. When the manufactured cells are reintroduced into the bloodstream, they may fight tumors more effectively.
Cancer Treatment Vaccines
Vaccines are also being studied to treat people who’ve already been diagnosed with cancer. They may help fight a wide range of cancers, including lung, reproductive, pancreatic, colon, and kidney. These vaccines could stop tumors from multiplying, destroy cancer cells that other treatments did not affect and prevent cancer from returning, according to Cancer.net⁵.
See if Immunotherapy Is Right for You
Immunotherapy is a relatively new approach to fighting cancer, and it may be effective for some people. Research shows that it offers promising benefits. Thought immunotherapy may only be available via a clinical trial right now, there is significant hope for the future – and one day, the harsh effects of treatments like chemotherapy and radiation may become a thing of the past.
Immunotherapy can improve a cancer patient’s prognosis, but it’s important to check with your doctor to determine if it’s the best treatment for your specific type of cancer. Immunotherapy is often used in conjunction with other therapies, and it may be a helpful treatment for cancer that doesn’t respond to traditional treatments.
Ask your doctor if any immunotherapy treatments have been approved for your specific case. If not, you might want to find out whether clinical trials are available. Find out how immunotherapy may help your cancer, what kinds of side effects it could cause, and what steps you should take. This type of treatment may be a beneficial option for you.
Like anything, it's always a good idea to be aware of the latest research. We recommend comparing at least 3 or 4 options before making a final decision. Doing a search online is typically the quickest, most thorough way to discover all the pros and cons you need to keep in mind.