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If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, you likely want to know what your options are. One such option a cancer patient currently has in this day and age would be immunotherapy. This medical practice is used in order to help your immune system fight off or at least control cancer cells. This article will look in-depth into what immunotherapy is and if it would be a viable option for a patient to undertake.
What Is Immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy is a biological or targeted therapy treatment that aims to help your immune system fight cancer. Since the immune system is a powerful part of the body that detects and destroys infection, immunotherapy has the potential to help curb the growth of cancer.
Types of Immunotherapy
There are several types of immunotherapy treatments. Here is a short list of some of the options and the definition of the specific types of immunotherapies.
1. Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors
Checkpoints are proteins or molecules that are a part of the immune system that require activation or inactivation to get an immune response going. If a tumor has only just begun and is not at its graver stages, drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors block or “brake” an immune response, thus helping immune cells respond better to cancer.
Cytokines act as a messenger between cells. There are two types of cytokines. The first is known as Interferons (IFN) which interrupt cancer cell division – and this inevitably slows down the growth of a tumor. Second, are the Interleukins (IL), which help immune cells multiply rapidly instead. They, therefore, act as a means to stimulate the immune system to attack cancer.
3. Targeted Antibodies
As of the time of writing, all available antibody therapies are based on monoclonal antibodies. Our bodies are able to produce antibodies to fight infections naturally, as mentioned earlier. Monoclonal antibody therapy tries to replicate our natural antibodies but is produced in a lab where a lot of copies are made for one specific antibody. The response of this is to either trigger the immune system by recognizing and attaching themselves onto the proteins of cancer cells or help the immune system itself fight off cancer.
4. CAR T-cell Therapy
This is a type of adoptive cell therapy that takes immune cells from a patient’s tumor and genetically engineers or modifies cancer-fighting T-cells with what is known as chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). These receptors specialize in targeting and eliminating cancer. This is then put back into a patient’s body through a needle in the vein.
5. Oncolytic Virus Therapy
In this case, viruses are modified and used to infect and kill tumor cells by causing them to self-destruct. This could then potentially allow other immune cells to continue to eradicate the main tumor and possibly other tumors in the body.
6. Cancer Vaccines
Vaccines awaken our immune system to make antibodies by injecting a harmless version of the disease in our body. Researchers are looking into the possibility that cancer vaccinations can create the same response. Designing and engineering cancer vaccines could encourage the immune system to attack cancer cells and cancer-causing bacteria and viruses. It is important to note that as of now, the vaccinations are not used to prevent us from cancer, but rather to prevent conditions that could cause cancer.
What’s the Difference Between Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy?
Chemotherapy, commonly referred to as “chemo”, attacks cells directly. What this means is that even if it can catch up to the rapid growth of cancer cells, it will also affect all other healthy rapid-dividing cells as well – such as the cells in our gastrointestinal tract and hair follicles. This is why it is common to see patients undergoing chemotherapy experience nausea and hair loss.
Immunotherapy stimulates a person’s own immune system to fight off cancer cells effectively by harnessing it to recognize, target, and eliminate cancer cells throughout the body. Immunotherapy does tend to take time, however, as it is highly dependent on the response of the individual’s immune system to fighting off cancer.
What Does the Immune System Do?
In order to understand immunotherapy, it is important to know how the immune system works. The immune system is comprised of a network of cells, tissues, and organs used to defend the body against infections, and it keeps us healthy. When harmful or foreign substances known as antigens invade the body, the immune system will respond by beginning to produce antibodies to weaken and attack the antigens. This means that if the same specific antigen enters into the body again, antibodies will recognize this and will already know how to fight it off the next time around. Antigens can come in the form of germs, bacteria, chemicals, or toxins.
The immune system is made up of antibodies, bone marrow, the complement system, the lymphatic system, the spleen, the thymus, and white blood cells.
Pros of Immunotherapy
- Better Response Compared to Other Treatments or with Other Treatments
Immunotherapy can be done simultaneously with other cancer treatments. In fact, it may even help other therapies, such as chemotherapy, to work better. However, even if a person with cancer cannot do chemotherapy in tandem with immunotherapy as the radiation would only make matters worse in their scenario, even having them do just immunotherapy itself could help their cells respond to fighting off cancer better.
- Fewer Side-Effects
Unlike other treatments, since immunotherapy specifically targets your immune system and not all the cells in your body, a patient may experience fewer side effects as compared to having to undergo other treatments.
- Cancer is Less Likely to Come Back
Since the immune system produces antibodies that learn and remember how to fight off an antigen once it returns, it learns to have the same effect should cancer cells ever return. This is what is known as immuno-memory.
Cons of Immunotherapy
- Side-Effects and Bad Reactions
While the side-effects may be relatively lesser than other treatments, it does not go without any. Some common symptoms may include flu-like symptoms, heart palpitations, weight gain, and diarrhea. Furthermore, your body itself may not respond well to having your immune system revved up, and you could experience body pain, itchiness, and swelling. This means that, although it might look like a good alternative, it isn’t a one fix-all solution as it does not work for everyone. In fact, as of now, the success rate of immunotherapy only works for less than half of the people who try.
- Harmful for Organs and Systems
Since immunotherapy is aimed at the immune system, the drugs that are being taken could cause the immune system to attack your other organs in the process such as your heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Thus, affecting other systems in the body that are heavily reliant on these organs.
- Longevity of the Treatment
This treatment does not work overnight and can actually take longer than the other options that are available since it is dependent on how your immune system will respond. This means that your cancer might not go as quickly as expected.
How Immunotherapy is Given
Some ways immunotherapy is given to a patient are:
- Topical: This can be used for skin cancer that is caught early on. This type of immunotherapy comes in the form of a cream that is rubbed onto the skin.
- Oral: Oral immunotherapy comes in capsule or pill form and is swallowed. It is similar to taking the usual oral medications.
- Intravenous (IV): This is the type of immunotherapy that is injected into the vein. Some examples mentioned earlier would be CAR T-cell therapy and cancer vaccinations.
- Intravesical: This is usually used to treat early-stage bladder cancer. This immunotherapy is done by directly going into the bladder.
How to Prepare for Immunotherapy
Before beginning immunotherapy, it is crucial to prepare your body first. You must inform your doctor if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have breathing problems, have an autoimmune disease, have liver disease, or have previously had a stem cell or organ transplant.
It is also important to give your doctor information about your full medication history – and be sure to list any changes in medication.
Since immunotherapy can have drastic effects on your body, you need to keep each doctor you see informed – for instance, your primary care provider, urgent care and emergency room staff, hospital staff, and any other specialists you may be seeing.
To keep your immune system strong during immunotherapy cancer treatment, we recommend following these tips:
- Sleep well. You should try to get at least 7 hours of shut-eye per night. If you don’t sleep enough on a regular basis, your system could be strained – thus leaving you prone to colds, the flu, and other infections.
- Eat well. Make sure to eat a wide variety of healthful foods – don’t skimp on protein, fruits, or vegetables.
- Start moving. Exercise can boost your immune system, and mild exercise is often safe even with cancer. Just be sure to have a conversation with your doctor about how much exercise you need, and which type best meets your needs.
- Manage your stress levels. Stress floods chemicals throughout your body, and this can negatively impact your immune system – as well as some other bodily systems.
- Protect yourself. Your immune system needs to be focused on beating cancer rather than steering off colds or stomach bugs. So, we recommend staying away from crowded places where you are more likely to come into contact with contagious illnesses. Be sure to wash your hands often if you go out, and use hand sanitizer when you can’t get to a sink.
Cancer has gravely affected and continues to affect the lives of millions all around the world. As of right now, although there is no cure and certain risks may be involved with different types of treatments available, there will always be hope. All American Hospice intends to guide and support you and your loved ones about the viable options that are available and tend toward all their caring needs.