You may be familiar with radiation and chemotherapy as cancer treatments. But a lesser-known treatment, immunotherapy, is helping patients fight cancer in a different way — by boosting the immune system.
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When your immune system identifies and destroys abnormal cells, this prevents many cancers from developing. But some cancers produce signals that thwart the immune system’s ability to detect and kill tumor cells. Other cancers are able to hide from the immune system. This makes it harder for the body to detect and destroy them.
Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that increases the strength of the body’s own immune system in order to help fight off cancer.
What these therapies are designed to do is either stimulate the immune system or counteract the signals from cancer cells that suppress the immune system.
The way I describe immunotherapy to my patients is that it’s like gently releasing the brake on the immune system, which allows the immune system to do its job more effectively.
Who might benefit
Historically, immunotherapy has already been used for treating kidney cancer and melanoma. Over the past few years, several new treatment methods can combat various cancers by increasing the strength of the immune system.
Immunotherapy is still in its infancy as a treatment for many types of cancer, with researchers still studying a lot of new therapies. As a result, there are new immunotherapies on the horizon that will effectively work against more solid tumors. These therapies will be used more broadly to treat other types of cancers.
Pros and cons of immunotherapy
Pro: Fewer side effects. The major advantage of immunotherapy over traditional cancer treatments is that there are usually fewer side effects. Although side effects can vary widely from one patient to another, common side effects might include flu-like symptoms, loss of appetite, fever and fatigue. Side effects also vary based on the type of therapy.
Con: Not a one-size-fits-all therapy. Although immunotherapy is a major breakthrough in cancer treatment, keep in mind that different cancers will respond to different types of treatment. Also, different people with the same type of cancer will respond differently to immunotherapy. So it may not be the treatment of choice for everyone.
The bottom line is that immunotherapy isn’t intended to take the place of surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy as a treatment for all cancers. Instead, it’s intended to be used in combination with other therapies.
The future of cancer treatment
The National Cancer Institute is currently conducting immunotherapy research that will allow scientists to improve their understanding of what enables immunotherapy to work in some patients, but not in others who have the same type of cancer.
They are also working to expand the use of immunotherapy to more types of cancer. And they want to have a better understanding of how to use immunotherapies in combination with targeted therapies and other standard treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
In addition to cancer, the immune system plays a role in the development of many disorders. While researchers are studying the use of immunotherapy for the treatment of cancer, we are hopeful that we will learn things that will also be applicable to non-cancerous conditions.