While not a new treatment for cancer, immunotherapy is becoming more commonplace and effective, according to Mark Hermann, MD an oncologist on UnityPoint Health – Finley Hospital’s medical staff.
“One of the roles of our immune system is cancer surveillance and helping the body destroy abnormal cells,” explains Dr. Hermann. “However, cancers can find ways to hide from our immune system or our immune systems can be deficient in eradicating all these cells. For some cancers this plays a big role in its progression.”
Immunotherapy is a way to treat cancer by using the body’s own immune system as the defense mechanism, in essence finding ways to work around hiding cancers or any deficiencies in the immune system. Dr. Hermann explains immunotherapy like unlocking the breaks on the immune system or unleashing the immune system on the cancer cells.
While there is a lot of potential with immunotherapy, Dr. Hermann is hesitant to say it’s a cure for cancer. Immunotherapy is effective in fighting many different types of cancers, but generally speaking it is used as treatment for advanced cancers. In fact, at Dr. Hermann’s clinic, lung cancer, which can be difficult to detect at an early stage is one of the more common cancers immunotherapy is used to treat.
Recently, immunotherapy was approved as an adjuvant treatment for melanoma cancer, meaning after the initial surgery or chemotherapy treatments, immunotherapy is used to suppress secondary tumors from developing. This is one of the more significant advancements for immunotherapy since there were not a lot of options in treating melanoma previously. Another effective use for immunotherapy is as a palliative treatment - helping people live longer and improving quality of life.
Just like any other medical treatment, immunotherapy has both benefits and risks. Since the immune system is “unleashed” through this treatment, there is the possibility that it can start affecting healthy organs and other parts of the body which would lead to an autoimmune response and development of other symptoms and side effects. However, immunotherapy has a lot of potential in the treatment of cancer. Dr Hermann says, “It’s only going to continue to improve. New techniques are on the horizon. It’s going to revolutionize a lot of our treatments for the future.”
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