Using the power of the immune system to fight cancer

December 07, 2016 | by William Broderick, M.D.

The human body is an incredible thing. You are probably unaware of this, but right now, your heart is beating 60 to 100 beats a minute, you’re blinking 15-20 times per minute, and you’re taking 12 to 16 breaths … and that’s only the beginning.

Researchers are continuing to discover new ways our bodies keep us healthy to fight against infections and diseases. For instance, our body’s immune system naturally detects and destroys abnormal cells to prevent many cancers from developing. But sometimes our immune system needs a little help. 

Scientists have found ways to use the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer. A type of treatment, called immunotherapy, helps the body recognize cancer cells and strengthen its immune response against tumors. Immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer by:

  • Stimulating the immune system to work harder or smarter to attack cancer cells using a drug to speed up your immune response
  • Giving the immune system components, such as man-made proteins, that helps it interact with cancer cells

Because of the immune system’s power, immunotherapy treatments have the potential to achieve complete, long-lasting remissions and cancer cures. 

Though not as widely used as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, immunotherapy has been approved to treat many types of cancer. Typically given intravenously (through an IV), orally, as a topical cream, or through a catheter, the main types of immunotherapy now being used to treat cancer include: 

  • Monoclonal antibodies. These are man-made versions of immune system proteins. Antibodies can be very useful in treating cancer because they can be designed to attack a very specific part of a cancer cell.
  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs basically take the ‘brakes’ off the immune system, which helps it recognize and attack cancer cells.
  • Cancer vaccines. Vaccines are substances put into the body to start an immune response against certain diseases.
  • Non-specific immunotherapies. These treatments boost the immune system in a general way, but can still help the immune system attack cancer cells.

Most people who receive immunotherapy treatments have cancers that have either recurred, spread or advanced throughout the body. 

To determine if immunotherapy is right for you, here are some questions you could ask your doctor: 

  • Do you recommend immunotherapy for me? What type?
  • What are the goals of my immunotherapy treatment plan?
  • How will I receive immunotherapy and how often will I receive it?
  • Is immunotherapy my only treatment? What other treatments will be part of my treatment plan?
  • What are the side effects? How will you help me manage them?

Immunotherapy clinical trials are critical to bringing new and potentially lifesaving treatments to more patients with a variety types of cancer. As research continues to advance, scientists will continue to find new ways to leverage the body’s immune system to fight cancer. 

In the meantime, you can do your part to not get cancer by taking care of your body and giving it the best chance to fight disease.

Read more about clinical trials and find one near you. 

Has immunotherapy been part of your treatment? Tell us in the below comments.

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