One cancer survivor details how her immunotherapy changed her cancer journey for the better, and how ongoing trials of immunotherapy are looking to change the cancer landscape for the better.
Sherry Hanson has published hundreds of articles, essays and poems. In 2013 she won a MORE Award for excellence in reporting on musculoskeletal issues from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS). She also won the 2014 Paumanok Award for Poetry from Farmingdale State College, Farmingdale, NY.
Sherry is a three-time survivor of ovarian cancer and volunteers in the “Survivors Teaching Students” program for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance of Oregon and Southwest Washington. She is also a volunteer Scientific Research Advocate for the Knight Cancer Institute, affiliated with Oregon Health Science University in Portland, Oregon.
On the occasion of my second relapse with ovarian cancer, it was time to look for a clinical trial and my son helped me find one that accepted me after my third surgery was performed. My nasty tumor lysate material was harvested at that surgery and later mixed with T-cells taken from my blood during a painless, but lengthy, procedure called apheresis.
Prior to entering the trial, I endured five weeks of daily abdominal chemotherapy to try and “mop up” any remaining cancer cells hiding along my lymph system. That was hell, just like chemo, but it ended.
My immunotherapy protocol was part of a clinical trial, and there are over 900 trials existing now for new immunotherapies in development.
Patients accepted into trials usually have advanced cancers, like I did, so this is often their last hope. But out of these trials come the new drugs. In my case, the magic was the vaccine created from my own cancer cells and T-cells. Six years later, it appears to have worked as I have been “stable” since 2013.
Another example of success is Opdivo, a form of immunotherapy used to treat advanced melanoma. A third of patients enrolled in early trials with Opdivo were alive five years after beginning treatment, according to the NCI.
Another promising immunotherapy is CAR T therapies which program the body’s immune cells to fight the cancer. These are currently the most effective treatments for blood cancers, including leukemias and lymphomas. In a recent trial for children and young adults with advanced leukemia, 83% of the children treated with the new CAR T drug Kymriah went into remission, a staggering figure in the world of cancer survival.
Even in extending life for those cancer patients who have run out of other options, immunotherapy has been successful. A recent phase two study of women with stage three or four ovarian cancer found that those who were treated with immunotherapy passed the median time frame for expected recurrence and have already lived well beyond 14.5 months. Warranting further study that could prove useful to future patients.
There are many types of immunotherapies. OncoLink
lists eight different kinds that all basically work to boost the patient’s immune system to do its job. Antibodies created in the lab can target a specific antigen, or they may block a receptor on the cells. Below are four ways in which immunotherapy is given.
- IV therapy goes into a vein
- Oral immunotherapy comes in pill form
- Topical immunotherapy is a cream rubbed on the skin
- Intravesical immunotherapy goes into the bladder
Immunotherapy may be given in the doctor’s office, in an out-patient clinic, or in the hospital. The caregiver may be responsible for transporting the patient. I flew to Chicago every three weeks for my vaccine injection into an inguinal node in my abdomen, watched the procedure on a monitor, experienced no side effects and I am here to tell my story!