My Journey with Immunotherapy
The purpose of our body’s immune system is to protect us against disease and infection. It does this by defending us from foreign substances such as bacteria, viruses, allergens, and toxins. When these substances or antigens are ingested or come in contact with our body, an immune response is triggered. The major function of our white blood cells (WBC) is to produce antibodies that mark the antigens, which makes them targets for other white blood cells to kill.1
Therefore, your physician will frequently check your white blood cell count to ensure that the levels are adequate after receiving treatment. During my chemotherapy treatments, I was also given medication to improve my WBC levels as they were reduced as a result of my chemotherapy.
Cancer cells evade the immune system
Cancer cells are not recognized as foreign invaders because they are altered versions or mutations of normal cells and do not usually trigger the same immune response as other antigens. Immunotherapy is the artificial stimulation of the immune system to combat cancer. Also called biologic therapy, immunotherapy utilizes our own immune system to fight cancer.1
Recent research has revealed that immune cells or antibodies that can recognize and kill cancer cells can be produced in the laboratory and then administered to the patient. Cancer cells have tumor antigens on their surface that can be detected by the antibody proteins. These modified immunotherapy antibodies bind to the tumor antigen, identifying them for the immune system to kill.1
As a result of ongoing research, immunotherapies being studied and used to treat blood cancer include:
Adding immunotherapy to my treatment plan
Both my oncologist and my second opinion oncologist from a major cancer center agreed that I should receive a monoclonal antibody in addition to my chemotherapy. A monoclonal antibody is an immune protein made in the lab and attacks a specific marker on the cell. They can destroy the cancer cell when they attach to the cell’s critical antigen.3 The results of the most recent study at the time recommended the administration of Rituximab combined with my chemotherapy Bendamustine for six months, followed by every two months for twelve doses.
While I was not happy with the prolonged treatment, we followed the recommendations. The medication was administered by intravenous infusion in an outpatient setting. Monoclonal antibody therapy can cause side effects, but they are usually milder than chemotherapy as they tend to leave normal cells unharmed. Side effects may include fever, chills, tiredness, headache, and nausea.3 My physician did prescribe medications prior to each infusion to reduce any ill effects. Fortunately, once my chemotherapy cycles were completed, I was able to return to work while receiving the monoclonal antibody.
An encouraging future for the treatment of blood cancer
Immunotherapy is an exciting intervention in the treatment of blood cancers. The results of clinical trials provide more information for a more positive outlook for these diseases. Today, I am fortunate to remain in remission from follicular lymphoma for five years. I believe that the monoclonal antibody made the difference and I look forward to further advances in treatment for all blood cancers. I encourage all blood cancer patients to consider participation in clinical trials as a strategy to find effective treatments.
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