Managing Treatments

How Does Cancer Immunotherapy Work?

Immunotherapy is an exciting area of cancer research. How does this treatment work and is it right for you?

Among the recent advances in cancer treatment, researchers are excited about the potential of immunotherapy — an approach that’s designed to use the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. It’s made headlines for its ability to target cancer cells and produce fewer side effects than traditional treatment options.

In fact, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) featured immunotherapy as the Clinical Cancer Advance of the Year in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Researchers continue to discover more positive news about the treatment, according to ASCO’s 2019 Clinical Cancer Advances report.

How Does Cancer Immunotherapy Work?

Your immune system is your body’s natural defense system. It recognizes, tags and fights bacteria and viruses (or even the body’s own damaged cells) that enter the body and cause infections and disease. With cancer, however, the immune system doesn’t always identify these cells as abnormal, allowing cancerous cells to dodge the body’s defenses and flourish.

Immunotherapy improves your body’s ability to fight cancer by “stimulating your own immune system to work harder or smarter to attack cancer cells,” explained the American Cancer Society (ACS). How does cancer immunotherapy work? It boosts or activates specific immune cells to pinpoint cancer cells. It helps your immune cells recognize cancer or block those cells from evading detection. Other treatments boost your immune system overall.

What Immunotherapy Treatments Are Available?

Immunotherapy is a very active area of research and there are several types of cancer immunotherapies currently available or being evaluated in clinical trials, according to ACS. Some treatments include:

  • Monoclonal antibodies: These immune proteins are developed in the laboratory and are designed to attack specific and unique parts of a cancer cell. In this way, these antibodies focus on cancerous cells, not normal cells.
  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors: Normally, your immune system doesn’t attack the body’s own healthy cells, thanks to checkpoint inhibitors. This treatment takes the brakes off the immune system, allowing it to go after cancer cells.
  • Cancer vaccines: Just like the measles vaccine can prevent infection from the measles virus, researchers are hopeful they can develop a vaccine that can one day prevent cancer.
  • T-cell therapy: This is a promising area of immunotherapy where researchers are working to harness the power of the immune system’s own T-cells to attack cancer cells. T-cells from a cancer patient are removed, modified in a laboratory to target specific cancer cells, and given back to the patient. The idea is that these modified T-cells will then find and attack cancer in the body more precisely.

Depending on the treatment, immunotherapy can be administered orally, through an IV, or topically. Treatment can take place in your doctor’s office, a clinic, or an outpatient unit of a hospital. The frequency and duration of your treatment depends on your specific case and how your body reacts to treatment.

What Are Cancer Immunotherapy Side Effects?

Researchers, physicians and patients are excited about immunotherapy because it allows doctors to target treatment more precisely compared to chemotherapy and radiation, which affect both cancerous and healthy cells in the body.

There can still be some side effects, however, depending on the type of cancer you have, your method of treatment, and your health. Some common immunotherapy side effects include fatigue, fever, nausea or vomiting, headaches, heart palpitations, swelling or weight gain, and blood pressure fluctuation, according to the National Cancer Institute. In some cases, you may experience skin problems such as redness, itching or a rash.

Is It Right for Your Cancer?

Cancer immunotherapy isn’t for everyone or every cancer. According to ASCO, the Food and Drug Administration has approved immunotherapy treatment for bladder cancer, head and neck cancer, Hodgkin lymphoma, lung cancer and melanoma. Most recently, the treatment has also been approved for breast cancer, reported STAT.

It’s a very new area of research and scientists are still discovering how it works. Talk to your cancer care team about whether immunotherapy should be part of your treatment plan and if there are any clinical trials you can participate in.

Talk to your doctor to learn more about immunotherapy and whether it’s right for you.

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Christine Yu