After a cancer diagnosis it is important to explore all possible treatment options. What many people find is that there are a wide variety of treatment options, each with their own unique set of advantages and drawbacks. While many are familiar with what chemotherapy and radiation are, immunotherapy may not be quite as familiar. The American Cancer Society provides a brief description of what immunotherapy is, “Immunotherapy is treatment that uses certain parts of a person’s immune system to fight diseases such as cancer. This can be done in a couple of ways: Stimulating your own immune system to work harder or smarter to attack cancer cells; giving you immune system components, such as man-made immune system proteins. Some types of immunotherapy are also sometimes called biologic therapy or biotherapy. In the last few decades immunotherapy has become an important part of treating some types of cancer. Newer types of immune treatments are now being studied, and they’ll impact how we treat cancer in the future. Immunotherapy includes treatments that work in different ways. Some boost the body’s immune system in a very general way. Others help train the immune system to attack cancer cells specifically. Immunotherapy works better for some types of cancer than for others. It’s used by itself for some of these cancers, but for others it seems to work better when used with other types of treatment.” While the concept of immunotherapy has been around for some time, the use of it in cancer treatment is relatively new compared to other cancer treatments. While it is new, many scientists and doctors are very excited about its use and the prospect it holds for the future.
Immunotherapy is not a magic bullet and it may not be the right course of treatment for everyone but, in essentially every form of cancer, there are patients who respond positively to immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is not only improving treatment effectiveness but improving long-term survival rates. Recently, Jimmy Carter was in the news sharing his success story with immunotherapy and, as Forbes points out, how effective and promising immunotherapy is proving to be, “The relevance of the news that former president Jimmy Carter’s melanoma is being treated partially with Keytruda, the Merck & Co drug that stimulates patients’ immune systems to fight cancer, goes far beyond simply demonstrating how important immunotherapy has become in oncology treatment. Carter is almost 91 years old—making him perhaps the most high-profile patient yet to show how these treatments are offering new options for elderly people facing the most serious stages of cancer… In the past, cutting-edge drugs were often out of reach for elderly patients because the harsh side effects were considered too big a risk for people who might be frail or suffering from other health conditions. But compared to chemotherapy, which usually causes toxic effects like extreme nausea and hair loss, immunotherapy drugs have proven to be quite mild. Only 6% of patients in clinical trials stopped taking the drug due to side effects, according to the patient information Merck provides… There were plenty of older patients in the Keytruda clinical trials. The label of the drug lists one trial with a median age of 61 and an age span that reached 94. That’s important: The age of the average melanoma patient is 62, according to the American Cancer Society, and the five-year survival rate when the cancer has spread is only about 15%… In addition to Keytruda, Yervoy (ipilimumab) and Opdivo (nivolumab) from Bristol-Myers Squibb have been approved to treat metastatic melanoma. Some of these drugs are being used in combination with each other or with older therapies, causing median survival times for patients newly diagnosed with the disease to jump from less than a year to well over two years. Some patients on combination immunotherapies have seen their cancers completely melt away.” More research is certainly needed since, in the world of medicine, immunotherapy is still quite new but the findings are incredibly encouraging and provide both doctors and patients with a lot of hope for the future of cancer treatment.