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People who have cancer look for every kind of treatment they can find. Sometimes cancer immunotherapy is the answer. Here is a brief introduction to what this kind of cancer treatment is, and how it works.

In August of 2015 ninety-one year-old former US President Jimmy Carter began to exhibit brain cancer symptoms. Tests soon revealed that melanoma he had had treated several years earlier had spread to his liver and his brain. The former President was sure he only had a few months to live, but his doctors were able to refer him for a relatively new form of treatment called immunotherapy. To the former president's considerable surprise, the treatment worked, and in December of the same year he was able to announce that his cancer was "gone." In the year since, has has remained active and vigorous even as he continues to receive his treatment.

Cancer immunotherapy for melanoma and for other forms of cancer is a therapy that is not only available for former presidents. Tens of thousands of people have gone into remission from cancers that 10 years ago would have been considered a death sentence. Cancer immunotherapy isn't always successful. For melanoma, for example, only about 30 percent of patients go into remission as did President Carter. Another 30 to 40 percent have partial remission. Success rates for other kinds of cancer are lower, maybe 20 to 40 percent.There is no reasonable expectation that anyone who receives the therapy will simply live forever. But this new method of cancer treatment holds out  hope for millions of people who are holding on through the arduous experience of cancer and cancer treatment.

Cancer immunotherapy is the biggest advance in the war on cancer so far in the twenty-first century. Advances in immunotherapy have attracted investments of tens of billions of dollars. They have spurred hundreds of clinical trials. If you get cancer, there's a chance immunotherapy will be available for you. Here are answers to some basic questions about immunotherapy for cancer. 

What Is Cancer Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a technique of treatment that relies on stimulating the immune system to fight disease. It helps the body work harder and smarter against cancer cells. One of the reasons the immune system has trouble defeating cancer is that tumors consist of our own cells. The immune system cannot recognize them as foreign to the body, the way it can recognize a bacterium or a parasite or a virus. Unlike radiation or chemotherapy, which are designed to kill cancer cells, cancer immunotherapy enhances the natural abilities of the body to fight disease.

Are There Different Kinds of Cancer Immunotherapy?

One form of cancer immunotherapy keeps cancer from hijacking parts of the immune system. When the immune system is fighting infection, certain proteins keep it from destroying healthy cells along with germs and infected tissue. Cancer can also produce these proteins so the immune system doesn't attack it. These proteins act something like hitting the brakes of a car to keep the immune system. These new drugs, known as checkpoint inhibitors (so called because they allow the immune system to pass certain "checkpoints" to proceed to attack infection) "release the brakes" so the immune system can attack cancer the same way it attacks germs. This was the kind of immunotherapy given to President Carter. 

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Denise Grady and Andrew Pollack. What Is Immunotherapy? The Basics on These Cancer Treatments. New York Times. 30 July 2016.
  • Photo courtesy of José Carlos Cortizo Pérez:

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