Humans have been fighting against cancer for millennia, although medical technologies currently available to us mean that we can detect this deadly disease earlier than ever, making successful treatment for early stage cancer more likely.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO), stated in its 2018 annual report that the number of new cancer patients globally exceeded 18 million, with fatalities resulting from the disease rising to 9.6 million in that year alone. What’s more shocking is that over 50% of all deaths resulting from cancer occurred in Asia, with the main problem being lifestyle habits which people in this region are not focusing on as much as they should.
The main problem with some forms of cancer is that they can suppress signals being sent via the immune system or stop white blood cells – which are responsible for protecting the body against invasive enemies – from destroying cancerous cells. This results in the cancer being hidden, enabling it to spread unhindered by the immune system – which is why cancer immunotherapy treatment was developed.
Irregularities affecting cells which cause them to turn cancerous usually develop a specific surface that allows white blood cells to differentiate them from regular cells, destroying them before they can grow into a lump. However, if the cancer cells are allowed to strengthen or the immune system of the patient is weakened for any reason, those cancer cells will develop and produce chemicals that protect them against detection by the white blood cells, making cancer cell destruction impossible. Cancer immunotherapy drugs operate by improving white blood cell function, enabling them to detect and destroy the foreign body (cancer).
Chemotherapy drugs function by targeting both healthy and cancerous cells, while molecular targeted therapy is a personalized form of treatment, meaning medical staff must carefully consider the patient’s specific needs before selecting which drugs to utilize.
Cancer immunotherapy, on the other hand, helps to improve the work carried out by white blood cells and therefore carries with it fewer side effects than chemotherapy. However, increased white blood cells function does increase the likelihood of numerous other side effects, including rashes, intestinal inflammation, diarrhea and pneumonia, as well as negatively impacting the thyroid, causing the thyroid to be over-worked or under-worked, heightening blood glucose levels, etc.
In addition to the choices made by the doctor regarding the type of drugs to use in cancer treatment, the stage of the patient’s cancer will also play a crucial role in the selection process. Molecular targeted therapy and immunotherapy are both useful in terms of treating cancer at stage 3 and 4.
Cancer immunotherapy may be used as the sole course of treatment for cancer or in conjunction with other types of cancer drugs, depending on the cancer’s stage. Statistics related to cancer treatment have found that before immunotherapy treatment was available, the 3-year survival rate of melanoma skin cancer patients averaged around 5%. Once immunotherapy treatment became more widespread, this number rose to 42%. Such findings were the same for the 5-year survival rate of lung cancer patients, which rose from 6% to 15% after immunotherapy was introduced. An example of its success is a stage 4 melanoma skin cancer patient – meaning the disease had already spread to the lungs, liver and bones – who received immunotherapy treatment for a period of 1 ½ years, resulting in cancer dormancy and the patient experiencing far fewer side effects than before and being able to carry on their normal daily life. This was also the case for a kidney cancer patient who received immunotherapy treatment for around one year and was able to lead a life free from complications. Cancer immunotherapy treatment is therefore considered an effective medicated form of cancer treatment.
Cancer immunotherapy results in a significant transformation for the daily life of the cancer patient, providing effective treatment with minimal side effects. Nevertheless, the type of cancer treatment available to each individual is very specific, meaning patients should attend a medical consultation and undergo a detailed health checkup in order to allow doctors to make the best choice for their specific needs.
The earlier a cancer can be detected, the greater is the chance of successful treatment. Hence, it is crucial that we all attend annual health checkups and undergo additional age-related health screening procedures, in order to aid doctors in identifying any irregularities. This is especially important for cancer, an extremely dangerous disease that can be successfully treated if found early enough. Furthermore, treatments such as immunotherapy mean that it is now also possible to treat stage 4 cancers or cancer that has spread to other organs, keeping it dormant and enabling the patient to lead a normal lifestyle for as long as possible.
The Second Class Honors M.D., Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University, 1993.