Did you catch one of today’s headlines? Immunotherapy may be a breakthrough treatment in fighting cancer! It’s all over the news. At first, I was a little confused because, it’s my understanding that, immunotherapy has been around for awhile. In fact, Herceptin (my continuing every-three week infusion) is a type of immunotherapy called a moniclonal antibody. In my mind, immunotherapy also makes it sound like it’s some new “natural way” to help your body create cancer fighting antibodies. But that’s not what this is.
First, here’s what I have learned about the immune system and immunotherapy: The reason our natural immune systems are not good at fighting cancer is that they don’t recognize our own rogue cancer-growing cells as foreign agents. They just think, “Wow, look at those member of my family over there acting all crazy-like.” Like your regular family, your immune system is not supposed to attack itself, and if it does start to do that, that’s called an auto-immune disorder (or to continue the metaphor, family disfunction.)
Immunotherapies are laboratory-created antibodies that are able to teach our immune system how to recognize cancer cells and go off and fight them, unlike chemotherapies which kills all cells (called labile cells) that are multiplying and dividing quickly (ie skin cells, white and red blood cells, hair, nails, brain, mouth and stomach lining.) This is also why brain, skin, stomach and blood cancers are more common and, as I have come to know first-hand, why chemo causes so many side effects. Just ask my hands, feet, nails, hair…
To continue my family metaphor, immunotherapy is like hiring a team of psychologist to follow your family members around and constantly correct them from acting badly. Chemotherapy is like hiring a black ops team to kill anyone with your last name.
So, what’s all the news about? This is about scientists combining several different lab-made antibodies and getting a better result than just using one. That would even be great breakthrough news if it was a successful treatment in and of itself. Unfortunately, it has to be used in conjunction with very powerful chemotherapy, radiation AND is not without causing some pretty horrible side effects all on its own. If you read the fine print of the studies, nearly ALL patients suffered multiple side effects including diarrhea, nausea, constipation, abdominal pain, vomiting, vitiligo, and dermatitis. Many suffered serious consequences ranging from severe hepatitis to a complete immune system shut down. In the 2010 combination therapy trial, 14 deaths were attributed to this treatment. Perhaps that’s a small price to pay (unless you were one of those 14 people) but once again, if the drug doesn’t kill you or destroy your quality of life, it might help you fight the cancer a little longer – even if it only works for 58% of the people who tried it.
I’m sure this IS great news for the pharma industry, and it might even bring us one step closer to finding a cure that isn’t so deadly. I certainly cheer on any research and science that’s working on the problem.
Personally, I would hate to imagine having a cancer that requires a more torturous treatment, and I pray, every day, for a kinder, gentler cure. In my mind, that would be a real breakthrough.