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Using the Immune System to Treat Cancer With Immunotherapy

Your immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, and other organs that work together to protect you from disease and infection. When it comes to certain illnesses like cancer, your existing immune system needs a little help. Immunotherapy treatment can boost your immune system or change the way it works so it can better identify and fight cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact.

“The immune system has an incredible ability to adapt to protect the body,” said Dr. Connie Uzel, medical oncologist at Southern Cancer Center. “Immunotherapy can be an effective way to leverage that protection for many cancer patients.”

How Does Immunotherapy Treat Cancer?

Your immune system works by detecting and destroying any abnormal cells. It does this by recognizing cells normally found in your body. When new substances are detected, the immune system is triggered and springs into action to keep your body healthy.

While the immune system can prevent or slow the growth of many cancer cells, it is often more difficult for the immune system to recognize them as bad. This is because cancer begins in normal, healthy cells that then become changed or altered. Since these cells look very similar to normal cells, they can bypass the immune system’s normal response. Immunotherapy treatments help your body recognize cancer cells and strengthen the response.

There are several types of immunotherapy used to treat cancer. Some work by boosting the natural defenses of your immune system. Others use lab-made immune system components to improve the way your immune system works. Some of these treatments include:

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors: Immune checkpoints are a normal part of the immune system and usually keep the immune response from being too strong and targeting normal cells. Proteins on the surface of the immune cells recognize proteins on the surface of other cells. This recognition tells the immune system the cell belongs in the body and turns off the immune response. Cancer cells may also contain these proteins on their surface which allows them to trick the immune system into letting them survive. Immunotherapy helps counteract this deception by assisting your immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells.
  • T-cell therapy: This treatment boosts your immune system by removing immune cells called T-cells from your tumor and changing them in a lab to better respond to cancer cells. These changed cells are then placed back into the body.
  • Monoclonal antibodies: Your body produces antibodies that recognize bacteria and viruses to trigger an immune response. Monoclonal antibodies are created in a lab to recognize certain proteins in cancer cells in a similar manner.
  • Oncolytic virus therapy: This treatment uses viruses that have been altered in a lab to infect and destroy cancer cells.
  • Cancer vaccines: Like many vaccines used to prevent other diseases, vaccines for some cancers can be used to trigger an immune response by exposing the body to a specific antigen it can then target.

Can Immunotherapy Be Used to Treat Any Type of Cancer?

Immunotherapy has been approved to treat many cancer types. However, each type of cancer is unique, which means treatment for each cancer must also be unique.

Your cancer treatment team can help you determine whether immunotherapy is appropriate for you. Speak to your physician about any questions you may have about your treatment plan.

What Should I Expect During Immunotherapy Treatment?

Immunotherapy treatment can be given in a doctor’s office, a clinic, or other outpatient setting. The type and stage of your cancer along with the type of treatment and how your body reacts to it, will determine how long and how often you receive treatment. Your physician will conduct physical exams and other medical tests to determine whether the treatment is working. For some patients, immunotherapy may be recommended along with other treatments.

Depending on the treatment type, immunotherapy can be administered by:

  • Infusing the medication into the vein
  • A pill or capsule taken orally
  • Inserting the treatment directly into the bladder
  • Topical application of cream (for some skin cancers)

Contact Southern Cancer Center for Information on Immunotherapy

The cancer specialists at Southern Cancer Center work with you to create the optimal treatment plan for your cancer. If you have been diagnosed with cancer and have questions about immunotherapy, please call (251) 625-6896 or schedule an appointment online HERE.

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