Photo Credit: Sophie LeMay
By Jackie Acho and John LeMay
We have long believed that immunotherapy is the answer to cancer. For many people, and certainly for me. I’m not one of the lucky minority with late-stage ovarian cancer for whom chemo catalyzes remission. We’ve known this would be the case since early in my first round (of what has become 3) of chemotherapy 2 years ago. I tolerate the chemo well, through diet and nutritional supplements, but it doesn’t really work.
Why? Maybe because my immune system was dysregulated by mold toxicity and mass cell activation in the first place. Maybe something else in my particular genes makes it difficult to stop the cancering process once it begins. Maybe because chemo is truly poison, not really a medicine, and shouldn’t be mainlined into human bodies. Yet, it buys time for me and others, so we abide it. It’s an old solution, often considered the “gold standard of care” in the United States, even when it doesn’t work. Knowing all of this, it’s a struggle to sit in a chemo infusion chair.
The hope has always been to somehow right my immune system so that it can fight cancer on its own. Once we got through chemo round one, I tried to do this naturally, with all of the nontoxic anticancer therapies that work (e.g., hyperbaric oxygen, mistletoe shots, plant strong clean ketogenic nutrition, immune boosting supplements, hyperthermia). Like blanket chemo solutions, these often effective therapies, even when conscientiously applied in combination, were no match for my particular cancer. I bought some time, but not a lifetime. Combining chemo WITH nontoxic therapies in Istanbul (e.g., whole body hyperthermia, hyperbaric oxygen, nutritional infusion) saved my life but didn’t give me a remission. Similar treatments closer to home in Chicago have been less effective for reasons that flummox all the docs. My cancer is very, very smart.
So, it’s time to pivot, hard. Immunotherapy for ovarian cancer is relatively nascent, and it’s clear that not all ovarian cancers are the same. Personalized immunotherapy would give us the best chance, but that’s not how the research is usually done. So, it’s tricky, and yet again, experimental…in which I am the lab rat. We have some leads, and we have some guides, but John and I are hard at work again trying to sort out options and discern the best way forward. To find the true “gold standard” of care, for me.
Certainly, immunotherapy will be a big part of the future of more empathic cancer treatments (and perhaps even prevention). Immunotherapies work with our bodies, rather than against them. They support natural functions vs kill indiscriminately the way chemo does. Here are the basics:
- Cancer immunotherapy treatments seek to both increase the level of immune system activity and also overcome cancer’s ability to hide from the immune system.
- Cancers can take hold in the body for many reasons but the immune system is always part of the story – cancers can progress if the immune system is compromised in some fashion or if cancer finds a way to hide from the immune system.
- Cancer hides from the immune system by presenting itself in a way that the immune system doesn’t recognize as a foreign body – once it achieves that condition it is able to grow uninhibited by our normal immune response.
- Immunotherapy often addresses differences typically found in cancer patients, such as
- Genetic differences
- Support for tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes which can help kill cancer cells as they form
- Helping our immune systems recognize cancer cells that have developed sophisticated ways of hiding/disguising themselves
There are several types of immunotherapy treatments in use and under development:
- Monoclonal antibodies and checkpoint inhibitors – Made in a lab, these antibodies slow or stop the growth of abnormal proteins in cancer cells. The goal is to alter the cancer cells so they are no longer able to “trick” the body into thinking they’re healthy cells so they can keep growing. This is the most commonly approved type of immunotherapy at this time.
- T-cell therapy (CAR T-cell therapy) – The patient’s own T-cells (immune system cells that fight infection) are removed from the blood. Next, a lab-created receptor is added to the T-cells, which are put back in the body. The receptors are able to identify cancer cells and destroy them.
- Cancer vaccines – Treatment vaccines are still mostly in the research phase to see how they can use the body’s immune system to identify and destroy specific types of cancer cells. A common approach is a dendritic cell vaccine. Here a patient’s dendritic cells are loaded with a tumor-specific antigen (a toxin or other foreign substance which induces an immune response) and reintroduced to the body, which allows the body to recognize and attack tumor cells. The same mRNA technology used in Pfizer/BionTech’s Covid vaccine is now also being used to develop cancer vaccines.
- Oncolytic virus therapy – Oncolytic viruses are those that are nonpathogenic to healthy cells but infect cancer cells, prompting a broader immune reaction
The field of immunotherapy has exploded over the last decade, and these emerging therapies are the most promising treatments to come out of cancer research in a very long time. Some people are calling this explosion of immunotherapy research and treatment options cancer’s “penicillin moment.” They don’t work for everyone with cancer, and there is much more work needed, but supporting immune system function makes intuitive sense.
There are many things we can do to support a healthy immune system on our own. Sleep. Exercise. Eat clean, healthy food. Drink pure water. Take additional vitamins/supplements as needed (e.g., C, D, A…get a great functional doctor to help you understand what your body needs). Laugh! Yes, laughter increases natural killer cells. Not so easy to do once the cancering process has begun, so try to get your laughs in while you’re not in a health crisis.
Once the cancering process is in motion, we need more. We need effective, empathetic (working with the body) medical interventions to restore immune system function. That is our hope with immunotherapy for everyone, including me.
We’re back to work, excavating options. We’ll let you know what we find. Immunotherapy is the answer for the future of cancer treatment…hopefully in time for me.