• How Immunotherapy was Right for Larry

    Cancer

    November 21, 2018

    What is immunotherapy?

    Rosana Gnanajothy, MD, answers common questions about this treatment for cancer.

    How does immunotherapy work?
    Immunotherapy revs up the immune system to go after tumor cells, which have a mechanism to evade the immune system. In this treatment, the evasion mechanism is blocked, and the immune system can attack the tumor cells.

    Can I choose immunotherapy over other treatments?

    In the past, other treatments had to be attempted before immunotherapy. Now, doctors have the option of using it first if they determine the patient will respond to it best.

    What are the side effects?

    Immunotherapy can cause the immune reaction to go overboard. That means it may attack normal tissues of the body. Patients should alert their doctors to any symptoms right away.

    What cancers are being treated with immunotherapy?

    The two main fields are melanoma and lung cancer. The treatment was first researched in melanoma, and it’s now being used to treat stage III and stage IV lung cancer.

    Can immunotherapy cure cancer?

    In stage IV lung cancer, immunotherapy doesn’t necessarily cure it, but it increases overall survival and helps stop the cancer from progressing. However, for stage III lung cancer, doctors are using it to increase the chances of a cancer cure.

    IN 2016, Larry Bolton’s prospects seemed grim. He had been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer with metastasis (or spread) to brain and liver. Then his health took a turn for the worse when his body wasn’t able to tolerate chemotherapy treatment.

    But the failed chemotherapy came with a silver lining. Because Bolton couldn’t tolerate the treatment, he had the opportunity to try something else: immunotherapy.

    Bolton’s cancer was discovered late because he didn’t notice any symptoms. After he experienced several falls in one weekend, a medical workup revealed that he had an advanced stage of cancer.

    Bolton started with radiation treatments, then went on to chemotherapy. The second round of chemo sent himto the hospital. That’s when doctors
    gave him the option of immunotherapy, which helps the immune system attack tumor cells. The treatment was first used to fight melanoma and later developed for use in treating lung cancer.

    The Right Treatment

    Now, a year and a half later and still on immunotherapy treatment, Bolton is doing remarkably well. “It’s a miracle how much better I feel,” he says.

    Bolton is doing so well that he got a new hip in September to fix an arthritic hip that wore out. Although he still has health struggles, he says he feels good every day. Without the immunotherapy treatment, he knows he could have died.

    Bolton has some advice for other patients who may be able to use immunotherapy: at least try it.

    “All it does is build your own cells,” he says. “It’s not like chemo. Immunotherapy builds your white cells to help fight the cancer.”

    For Bolton, immunotherapy has given his everyday outlook a big boost. “I never think about dying, because I feel good,” he says.