"Harnessing the body’s own immune system lead to less toxic cancer treatments", said the pioneers involved in the field of immuno-oncology.
Since a few decades, much focus was on chemotherapy and radiation therapy for treating cancers. But toxicity was the biggest issue with these treatment options. The development and use of immunotherapy have provided an effective treatment approach with less toxicity and better quality of life.
Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment modality, which involves the usage of certain substances derived or made from living organisms to fight against cancer. Immunotherapies are of several types, and each has a different mechanism. They work either by recognizing and attacking cancer cells or by stimulating the immune system.
According to some scientific studies, people with advanced cancer are benefited with immunotherapy. Also, people who do not respond to radiation therapy or chemotherapy are considered good candidates for immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy may not be a good option for everyone. Based on the patient’s condition, treatment history, type and extent of the tumour, the doctor will decide whether you are a suitable candidate for immunotherapy or not.
PREPARATION BEFORE PROCEDURE
A physical examination is done to assess the overall health condition of the patient for undergoing the treatment. Certain allergic tests are recommended to determine if the person is allergic to any substance. Maintaining a strong immune system is very important during immunotherapy. So, the person is advised to have a well-balanced and healthy diet.
The patient may receive either single or a combination of any of the following types of immunotherapy:
Monoclonal antibodies: These are the laboratory-produced proteins made from identical immune cells. Medicines of this class bind to the cancer cells and acts by either:
- Blocking the activation of certain signals responsible for the growth of cancer cells
- Destroying the outer walls of the cancer-cells
- Blocking the production of new blood vessels required for the growth of cancer cells
Non-specific immunotherapy: It does not target cancer cells directly, but it stimulates the immune system to attack the cancer cells. In some cases, this therapy is used as an adjuvant therapy to boost the immune system to improve the action of other immunotherapies.
Cancer vaccines: These are the substances that stimulate the immune system against the tumour-specific antigen and improve the outcomes in cancer. The main aim of the cancer vaccines is to prevent recurrence of cancer or to treat existing cancer.
Immune checkpoint inhibitors:
The immune system has certain proteins that serve as checkpoints to regulate the immune response. In normal conditions, these proteins find foreign cells or abnormal cells and destroy them. Cancer cells may display themselves as normal cells and mislead these checkpoints to prevent themselves from getting attacked.
Immune checkpoint inhibitors target these checkpoints and help the immune cells identify the cancer cells and destroy them.
Immunotherapy is given either in the form of injections, pills, capsules, or cream (in early-stage skin cancer).
Some types of immunotherapy require a hospital stay. Based on the type of cancer and overall health condition, the patient may receive immunotherapy daily, weekly, or monthly. In most of the cases, immunotherapy is given every two to three weeks in a repeating cycle followed by a period of rest. For better outcomes, the doctor usually combines two immunotherapies, or with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or hormone therapy.
Tests during immunotherapy
During immunotherapy, a physical examination is done to assess the overall health. Medical tests, such as a blood test to look for any changes in the blood, and imaging tests to check the size of tumours are also done.
Like all the other treatment modalities, immunotherapy also has some common side effects, such as:
- Hormonal imbalance
- Redness and swelling of the skin (if applied topically or in the form of injection)
- Muscle pain
- Loss of appetite
Tips to manage the side effects of immunotherapy
The following tips help in managing the side effects while receiving immunotherapy:
- Take adequate rest
- Have a healthy and nutritious diet
- Exercise regularly
- Manage stress by doing meditation, breathing exercises, etc
- Stay away from sick people
FACTORS AFFECTING COST
The cost of immunotherapy is very less in India when compared with other countries. The cost of immunotherapy depends on the type of cancer, hospital, hospital stay, and duration of treatment.