By Jack Bush, Patient Navigator

When I was a diagnosed with cancer in 2008, I never heard about immunotherapy or targeted therapy. I saw them mentioned while I was training to become a patient navigator in 2017 and thought, “what are those and why wasn’t I offered them?” This started my interest in these therapies, which has continued to grow. I soon found out the reason why they weren’t offered to me. According to the National Cancer Institute, it wasn’t until May of 2017 that the first immunotherapy was approved for the type of cancer I had (Hodgkin’s Lymphoma also known as Hodgkin’s Disease). Even then, it was only for patients who had relapsed or worsened after previous treatments, which was not the situation that I was in.

The American Cancer Society defines immunotherapy as a treatment that uses certain parts of a person’s immune system to attack diseases such as cancer. Immunotherapy drugs can help the immune system fight cancer in a variety of ways. One of the most commonly used types of immunotherapy, immune checkpoint inhibitors, helps the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells. Using the immune system to treat cancer was first tried in the late 1800’s but only recently has the practice become better understood and more widely used. Immunotherapy can have fewer side effects than chemotherapy but can also cause serious side effects such as immune disorders, which happen when the immune system attacks healthy tissues. Thankfully, these are not common.

Targeted therapy drugs work differently than chemotherapy. Chemotherapies kill cells that grow and divide quickly (both cancerous and healthy cells). Targeted therapies target parts of cancer cells that make them different from other cells. Testing can be done on tissue from a tumor to look for mutations; if mutations are found that a drug has been developed and approved to target, the drug can be used to treat the cancer. Examples from the American Cancer Society of ways that targeted therapies can work to kill cancer cells include: changing proteins within the cancer cells so the cancer cells die, stopping the production of new blood vessels to feed the cancer cells, carrying toxins to the cancer cells to kill them but not the normal cells, and blocking or turning off chemical signals that tell the cancer cell to grow and divide. Targeted therapies can have fewer side effects than chemotherapies but The National Cancer Institute states that targeted cancer therapies can still have substantial side effects. The first targeted therapy for cancer was approved in 1977. More targeted therapies were approved in the subsequent decades, but recently as the understanding of genes has improved, targeted therapies for cancer have increased dramatically.

There are many types of cancer and many different ways to treat cancer. Information from the Cancer Research Institute shows that in the past two years, over ten different types of immunotherapies and targeted therapies have been approved to treat more than ten different types of cancer. Cancer treatments are like tools in a toolbox: the more treatments available to cancer patients that are tolerable and effective, the better we will be able to fight this terrible disease. Recent discoveries have given doctors and patients more choices and ways to fight cancer, with fewer side effects. These discoveries and the ongoing research into new treatments should give us hope that one day we will have many ways to cure the many different types of cancer.

The Cancer Resource Centers’ 2018 Cancer Awareness and prevention series is sponsored by CRC in collaboration with the Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency. The information presented is for educational purposes and is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your health care provider.