Immunotherapy harnesses power of immune system

Among the most promising advances in cancer treatment is immunotherapy. It stimulates your own immune system to recognize and eliminate cancer cells from your body. The groundbreaking treatment has demonstrated remarkable results in attacking cancers that have evaded the immune system and spread out of control.

You might think that cancer means you have a weak immune system. In reality, cancer cells have a unique ability to hide from it.

Immunotherapy works by flipping a switch on cancer cells that lets them hide from your immune system. Then, your immune system can do its job — attacking and killing cancer cells. Other immunotherapy treatments directly stimulate the immune system's T cells, enhancing their capacity to attack cancer cells.

Is immunotherapy right for you?

Immunotherapy has shown promise in treating patients with bladder, prostate, kidney and lung cancer, as well as melanoma. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has approved immunotherapy treatments as standards of care for these types of cancer.

Medical science isn't stopping there. Testing immunotherapy drugs to treat other types of cancers continues. In fact, the HonorHealth Research Institute is conducting clinical trials for immunotherapy drugs treating other tumor types.

Because the effectiveness of any cancer treatment and its side effects can vary from individual to individual, you can benefit from HonorHealth's personalized approach to cancer treatment. HonorHealth specialists work closely with you, your family and your medical team to choose the best treatment option, which could include immunotherapy.

How do immunotherapies act on the body's immune system?

Also known as biotherapy or biological response modifiers, immunotherapies can be separated into four categories:

  • Interferons are proteins released by white blood cells to boost the immune system. They are shown to be effective to treat melanoma and chronic myeloid leukemia.
  • Interleukins are proteins that promote the growth and division of immune cells. Researchers are still identifying naturally occurring interleukins, but a man-made version, interleukin-2, is approved for treatment of kidney cancers and melanomas.
  • Monoclonal antibodies target certain proteins that allow cancer cells to turn off immune cells. The antibodies restore the immune response against cancer cells, identifying the cancer as foreign and destroying it. Monoclonal antibodies are approved for treatment of prostate, bladder, kidney, lung and skin cancers.
  • Vaccines help your body mount an immune response to destroy cancer. Vaccines may contain killed cancer cells that can't grow into new tumors but can stimulate your immune system enough to fight off other cancer cells. Other vaccines are produced by exposing your immune cells to cancer-related proteins in a laboratory and injecting them back in your body through an infusion. There's a vaccine for treating prostate cancer; others are being studied for treating and preventing a variety of other cancers.

Side effects of immunotherapy

Immunotherapy treatments have different side effects than chemotherapy (hair loss, low blood count, neuropathy, etc.). Immunotherapy's side effects need to be recognized and treated early so they don't become dangerous.

Side effects at the needle site can include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Soreness
  • Redness
  • Itchiness
  • Rash

You many have flu-like symptoms that include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Low or high blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Muscle or joint aches
  • Headache
  • Trouble breathing

In rare instances, immunotherapies may cause severe or fatal allergic reactions.

Side effects from over-activation of the immune system and inflammation in organs of the body could include:

  • Skin rash.
  • Thyroid gland dysfunction — thyroiditis — caused by inflammation
  • Inflammation in the liver: hepatitis
  • Bowel inflammation: Colitis resulting in diarrhea, blood in the stools, abdominal cramps, etc.

Your HonorHealth physician will closely monitor you and adjust your treatment, if needed.