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Immunotherapy: Harnessing the power of your immune system

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One of the most promising treatment options for your cancer is immunotherapy. It stimulates your own immune system to recognize and eliminate cancer cells from your body.

You might assume that cancer means you have a weak immune system. Actually, it has the capability to fight off cancer, but it needs to see the cancer cells first. Immunotherapy treatment flips the switch on cancer cells so they can no longer hide, and your immune system can do its job — attacking and killing cancer cells. The groundbreaking treatment has demonstrated remarkable results in treating cancers that have evaded the immune system and spread out of control.

Also known as biotherapy or biological response modifiers, immunotherapies are available in five categories. Used alone or with other cancer treatments, they are:

  • Interferons: Proteins released by white blood cells to help your immune system fight cancer. Interferon treatment is approved for melanoma and chronic myeloid leukemia, but is being studied for use on other cancers.
  • Interleukins: Proteins that promote the growth and response of your immune cells. Researchers are still identifying interleukins, but one, IL-2, is approved for treatment of kidney cancers and melanomas that have spread.
  • Monoclonal antibodies: These attack areas on the surface of tumor cells so your body can identify the cancer as foreign and destroy it through an immune response. Monoclonal antibodies are being studied for effectiveness in a variety of cancers.
  • Vaccines: They help your body recognize cancer cells and trigger your immune system to destroy them. Vaccines may contain cancer cells killed through radiation so they can't grow into new tumors. Yet the dead cells stimulate your immune system enough to fight off other cancer cells. Vaccines are actively being studied for treating a variety of cancers.
  • Colony stimulating factors: They increase the division of bone marrow cells to stimulate the production of your red and white blood cells and platelets. The process is thought to strengthen your ability to endure high doses of chemotherapy.

Immunotherapy has much promise because of its effectiveness and lack of side effects. Rather than introducing toxic drugs into your body, which can lead to hair loss, low blood count or bowel obstruction, immunotherapy uses your body's natural defenses to heal. Minor side effects can include flu-like symptoms or a rash. Your oncologist will closely monitor you and can adjust your treatment, if needed.

Is immunotherapy right for me?

There's no guarantee that any treatment will meet your individual needs. Because there are more than 200 different types of cancer and myriad treatment options, you'll benefit from HonorHealth's personalized approach to cancer treatment. Our specialists work closely with you, your family and your medical team to choose the best option, which could include immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy has been shown to activate the immune system in patients with certain cancers, such as melanoma, lung cancer, certain forms of breast cancer and bladder cancer, when those cancers did not respond to traditional treatments. The FDA has approved immunotherapy treatments as standards of care for melanoma and some lung cancers.

The HonorHealth Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center has current clinical trials that are researching the effect immunotherapy has on many cancers. If you believe you may benefit from an immunotherapy trial, call 480-323-1339.