Cancer in the Future
August 19, 2013 |
Cancer in the Future
Changing Treatments and Empowered Patients through Immunotherapy
For decades a cancer diagnosis meant drastic measures – surgery, chemo, radiation – which damage healthy cells and leave patients feeling frail and nauseous. However a promising new class of cancer treatment is revolutionizing what it means to fight cancer and be a cancer patient.
Cancer immunotherapy is a type of treatment that mobilizes the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. In the past this has been difficult, however recent scientific advancements have allowed researchers and doctors to modify the immune system in ways that get it to recognize and fight cancers.
For the past 60 years, the New York City-based nonprofit Cancer Research Institute (CRI) has been raising awareness and funding to support research into cancer immunotherapy. They are one of the largest non-governmental funders of cancer immunotherapy research worldwide, having distributed more than $14.6 million in grants and fellowships in FY2013 alone.
In some cancers, clinical research has produced treatments with effective rates much higher than traditional cancer treatments. Some patients even go into complete remission as their bodies continue to fight long-term against disease relapse.
“We see cancer immunotherapy as the best way to prevent, treat and ultimately cure cancers,” said Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D., CEO and director of scientific affairs at CRI. “When it’s your body fighting the cancer, that is truly personalized medicine. It’s really the future of cancer treatments for doctors and patients.”
An unexpected benefit has come from these changing treatments. Most patients undergoing immunotherapy treatments have far milder side effects than traditional treatments, and when it comes to fighting cancer that can make all the difference.
Mary Elizabeth Williams, a senior writer for Salon.com living in New York City, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and had surgery to remove it. About a year later, her cancer metastasized, spreading into her lungs and back.
She was offered a place in a clinical immunotherapy trial run by Dr. Jedd Wolchok, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and a member of CRI’s scientific leadership committee. Three months after starting cancer immunotherapy treatments, Williams was in complete remission and has been for a year and a half.
For her, one of the most powerful implications of immunotherapy treatments is the way it changes how patients see themselves and are seen by others.
“The physical and the psychological are so deeply entwined,” she said. “…The way you look affects the way you feel and affects the way people treat you and interact with you. And to look still relatively like myself, to be relatively like myself, not have dramatic weight loss, not lose my hair, not have nausea, made a huge difference.”
“I definitely still had side effects, but to be able to tolerate treatment and go on with my life, maintain my work and my social life, it was gigantic and it made me feel so empowered,” Williams said.
With immunotherapy research growing, O’Donnell-Tormey said more people will fight cancer in ways that maintain their normal lives. In that way, immunotherapy is not just the goal of more effective treatment, but a way to fight that gives power and hope back to patients.