If your oncologist is recommending you use immunotherapy for cancer treatment, this page will help you understand what to expect, how immunotherapy works, and the types of cancers it can treat at CHC.
What Is Immunotherapy for Cancer Treatment?
As a cancer treatment, immunotherapy boosts your own immune system so it can fight and kill cancer cells. Normally, cancer cells can hide from your body’s immune system, but immunotherapy trains your body to treat the bad cells like a virus.
Immunotherapy is an extremely effective treatment that can help some cancer patients live longer. Clinical researchers are working every day to develop more new immunotherapy drugs to treat even more types of cancer, making it an even more versatile treatment.
How Does Immunotherapy Work for Cancer?
Imagine for a moment that your body is a castle. Your immune system acts as your body’s soldiers and guards to protect the castle from invaders like viruses and bacteria, along with “traitors,” or cancer cells, living inside the walls that could cause just as much damage. The soldiers are constantly patrolling your body to look for invaders and traitors and destroy them.
However, the traitors are sometimes able to get past the soldiers in the castle so they can keep growing and causing problems undetected. This is what can lead to cancer developing and spreading in your body.
Immunotherapy trains the soldier-like immune system so it can more easily find and kill cancer cells before they become an even bigger problem.
Immunotherapy cancer treatments are used as an early treatment for certain cancers that have spread to other parts of the body. Your oncologist might use immunotherapy alongside chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and other cancer treatment options.
There are multiple types of immunotherapy treatments for cancer, all of which treat different types of cancer and enhance different parts of your immune system. Some parts of the immune system you’ll hear about at The Cancer & Hematology Centers include:
- White blood cells: These include T-cells, B-cells, and NK-cells (all together known as lymphocytes), neutrophils, and macrophages.
- Proteins: These include antibodies, checkpoint proteins, and other chemical signals that tell your immune system what to do.
- Lymph nodes: These are tissues located throughout the body that are full of immune cells—in our castle metaphor, these are the guard towers where all the soldiers can prepare for battle.
Adoptive Cell Therapy
Also known as T-cell transfer therapy, the process of adoptive cell therapy involves your oncologist taking a sample of your immune system’s T-cells. Then, the medical team will grow them separately in a lab. Once the cells are mature enough, your oncologist will put the fully grown T-cells back into your body so they can kill your cancer cells.
Some of the cancers adoptive cell therapy can treat include brain cancer, breast cancer, and certain types of leukemia and lymphoma.
Just like how an annual flu shot trains your immune system to fight influenza, cancer vaccines can train your body to fight certain types of cancers. While they can’t prevent cancer, they can train your body to fight it, making it easier to manage alongside other treatment combinations.
While many types of cancer vaccines are still being evaluated, there is an FDA-approved cancer vaccine that responds to prostate cancer, allowing those with the disease to live longer.
Throughout your body, there are checkpoint proteins that tell your T-cells when to attack and when not to attack. Checkpoint inhibitors work by disconnecting these proteins from other proteins. By disconnecting them, the T-cells won’t have a signal telling them not to attack—so they’ll keep going after cancerous cells.
Oncologists use checkpoint inhibitors to treat many types of cancer, including those that can’t be treated with surgery or that haven’t responded to other treatments. Some of the specific types of cancer that typically respond to checkpoint inhibitors include:
- Bladder cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Head and neck cancer
- High-risk triple-negative breast cancer
- Kidney cancer
- And more
Immune System Modulators
Also called immunomodulators, immune system modulators boost your body’s ability to respond to cancer. There are three common types of immune system modulators:
- Cytokines: These are proteins that tell your immune system that a cancerous cell is an intruder, so it can attack and kill the cells.
- Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG): This is primarily used as a form of immunotherapy for bladder cancer to train your immune system to recognize malignant cells.
- Immunomodulatory drugs: Also called biologic response modifiers, these medications boost your immune system and are sometimes used to treat certain types of lymphoma.
Sometimes considered a form of targeted therapy, monoclonal antibody therapy uses the antibody proteins in your immune system to mark the cancer cells more effectively so your white blood cells know to attack them. It involves introducing lab-made antibodies to support your existing antibodies.
With the lab-made antibodies, your immune system will know to target parts of a cancerous cell or block their abnormal proteins. They can also make it easier to deliver radiation or drugs to kill the cancerous cells, when this therapy is combined with chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or other treatments.
Side Effects of Immunotherapy
Just like most cancer treatments, there are side effects associated with immunotherapy, since it’s changing a system that protects your entire body. Some people may experience fatigue, rashes and inflammation, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, persistent cough, and decreased thyroid hormone levels.
If you’re experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, or shortness of breath, call us for same-day care at 800-411-7999.
Types of Cancer Immunotherapy Can Treat
Introduction to this subtopic with a disclaimer that this isn’t exhaustive and treatments can vary depending on a bunch of different factors
Immunotherapy is a promising cancer treatment because it can fight so many different types of cancer while doing less damage to the rest of the body than more traditional methods like radiation or chemotherapy. These are some of the types of cancer immunotherapy treats, with common treatment methods for each one.
Immunotherapy for lung cancer is most often used to treat non-small cell variants of the disease. If you have non-small cell lung cancer, your oncologist may recommend monoclonal antibody therapy or checkpoint inhibitors as part of your overall cancer treatment plan.
The type of immunotherapy for breast cancer you might receive depends on the type of breast cancer you have. For example, patients with high-risk triple-negative breast cancer may be eligible for checkpoint inhibitors. Other types of breast cancer can be treated with monoclonal antibody therapy, but the treatment options your oncologist will recommend depends on the specific type of cancer you have.
Immunotherapy for prostate cancer typically uses cancer vaccines. The vaccine uses a type of immune cell that responds to certain antigens on prostate cancer cells, killing the malignant cells to slow the progression of the disease.
Since surgical treatment is quite invasive on its own, immunotherapy for bladder cancer is a common way to reduce the size of tumors and slow or stop their growth before further intervention.
The FDA has approved two immunotherapy options for a subset of patients with pancreatic cancer: Dostarlimab (Jemperli) and Pembrolizumab (Keytruda). Both of these treatments are checkpoint inhibitors that address advanced pancreatic cancer with DNA mismatch repair deficiency and a few other markers.
Since pancreatic cancer has a consistently severe prognosis, it is highly recommended that you enroll in clinical trials to find the best possible treatment for you.
Immunotherapy Cancer Treatment at CHC
At CHC, we provide a tailored approach to giving you the best treatment possible when you work with us. We also provide you with cutting-edge immunotherapy treatment options, including those still undergoing clinical trials.
In many cases, your oncologist will use immunotherapy as an initial treatment for your cancer. Some may also use immunotherapy combined with other treatments, like surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy.
At CHC, we know you’re probably coming to us during one of the most challenging times in your life. That’s why everyone on our team has the same priority: Making sure you and your family feel supported through every step of your treatment journey.
Every member of our team will take time to answer your questions and listen to your concerns, both physical and emotional, with compassion. We’re here to help you focus on healing and strive to provide compassionate, innovative care.
Speak with Our Staff Today
Regardless of which type of immunotherapy or other cancer treatment your oncologist recommends, our experienced staff will be by your side through each step of the process. To learn more about immunotherapy and other cancer treatment options, call our experts at 800-411-7999 today.