Over the past 10 years, a new class of drugs has revolutionized cancer care. These medications, known as checkpoint inhibitors, unleash an individual’s own immune system on malignant cells, offering new hope to people with cancer.
Before these treatments hit the mainstream, the immune/cancer connection may not have been apparent to the average person. This relationship is central to understanding cancer development.
Our immune systems play a critical role in identifying and destroying aberrant cells before they become cancerous. This protective phenomenon, known as immunosurveillance, is led by dendritic cells, natural killer (NK) cells, and cytotoxic T-cells.
Cancer develops in part because these cells fail to control abnormal growth. Individuals with immune deficiencies are known to be at higher risk of cancer, especially those caused by viruses. This predisposition highlights the critical anticancer role of our immune system.
Immune deficiency cannot explain every diagnosis. Cancer is a master manipulator, dodging immune detection through a complex interplay of microscopic cellular receptors and chemical messengers. Malignant cells shield themselves in what is known as the tumour microenvironment, a toxic entourage of hijacked cells that promotes cancer growth, causes inflammation, and confuses the immune system.
If detected, cancer cells can avoid destruction by stealthily changing their external appearance. While it may be tempting to blame immune dysfunction for a cancer diagnosis, the truth is that we are up against a formidable opponent.
Immune attacks require immune treatments
The newest treatments harness the power of the immune system, unmasking cancer and heightening the immune response. These include
- monoclonal antibodies (e.g., Herceptin), which “tag” cancer cells, slowing down their growth while making them visible to our immune system
- checkpoint inhibitors (e.g., Nivolumab), which dismantle the immune blockades set up by cancer cells
- adoptive cell therapy (CAR and TIL T-cell therapy), which arms our own immune cells with cancer-specific receptors to find and destroy malignant cells (experimental)
Given the intimate connection between immune function and cancer, these therapies are the next logical step in care.
Your food really is your medicine!
Maintaining highly diverse gut flora is associated with the best outcomes from checkpoint inhibitors, a form of immunotherapy. Unfortunately, probiotic supplements may have the opposite effect, based on a new study showing lower efficacy in probiotic-popping patients on immunotherapy.
Feed your flora with a wide variety of whole foods rather than through supplementation.
High-tech treatments, low-tech support
At first glance, the minute tools and targets of immunotherapy may smack of science fiction. In stark contrast, supportive therapies grounded in traditional medicines draw the focus back from the cellular level to that of the whole person and represent essential supports to quality of life during treatment.
Acupuncture stimulates energetic meridians in the body using thin needles, pressure, electrical or laser impulses, and heat. This ancient therapy is well recognized for its ability to control nausea and vomiting during treatment, and it may also strengthen the immune system.
Pain, including nerve pain associated with chemotherapy, may also be soothed by acupuncture. As pain can compromise quality of life severely during treatment, this approach can offer a lifeline to patients.
Some professionals advise against massage, fearing this therapy will spread cancer. This erroneous belief may hinder access to a therapy that goes far beyond relaxation.
Massage therapy can protect against nerve damage during chemotherapy, and at-home self-massage may help to ease constipation. People getting massages have a better life quality overall (surprise!) and might even see their immune system respond positively. Far from being harmful, massage can provide immense benefit to people with cancer.
Using the mind to help the body
Less tangible treatments can be equally powerful, engaging the mind as an ally for symptom management. Guided imagery uses descriptions of positive images to create a state of calm. This simple practice can reduce pain, thereby improving quality of life. The related field of hypnosis may also control pain by promoting relaxation in a trancelike state. Pain is one of the most common concerns of people with cancer.
A cancer diagnosis can trigger anxiety, a fact that may be overlooked in the rush to identify genetic factors or treatment protocols. Hypnotherapy, meditation, and tai chi are all simple yet profound practices that can provide necessary support through the emotional challenges of cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Movement and exercise
Exercise is a well-known lifestyle strategy for cancer risk reduction. During treatment, it supports the heart and other muscles that can be weakened by some therapies. A simple walking plan can reduce the fatigue that so often accompanies chemotherapy and radiation. Gentle movement through qigong and yoga have broad benefits, improving fatigue, sleep, depression, and pain.
Alongside exercise, food is an essential pillar of health and can be tweaked to be optimally supportive during treatment. The practice of fasting and the use of fasting-mimicking diets have received much attention recently, as they may reduce side effects, enhance quality of life, and improve a person’s response to therapy. Always consult your health care practitioner before fasting during treatment.
While supplements cannot be positioned as alternatives to standard therapy, specific adjuncts can provide important assistance during treatment.
Efforts to understand the connection between vitamin D and cancer risk have been underway for many years. Cancers of the breast and colon may be linked with vitamin D insufficiency. These associations, alongside vitamin D’s ability to reduce complications in bone marrow transplants and improve response to some immune therapies, may be connected to the immune effects of this vitamin.
Probiotic supplements are packed with billions of the tiny bacteria that inhabit our guts. These miniscule micro-organisms have a big role to play in immunity, influencing how our bodies deal with infections, eczema, and digestive upset. Treatment side effects such as candida infections and diarrhea may be improved by probiotic use.
Mushrooms and mistletoe
Two final strategies, medicinal mushrooms and mistletoe injections, deserve mention in any discussion of cancer and immune function.
The coriolus mushroom, commonly known by the colourful moniker “turkey tail,” ticks a number of important boxes for people with cancer by improving quality of life, immune function, treatment tolerance, and survival.
Mistletoe injections, although perhaps not for the faint of heart, have a long history of use in European countries and provide many of the same benefits as coriolus. Future research may reveal whether the immune effects of these treatments are responsible for their beneficial actions.
While high-tech immunotherapy is the future of conventional oncology, traditional medicines and nutritional supplements can provide essential low-tech support.
The immune-supporting lifestyle
Cancer-fighting natural killer cells may be helped by meditation.
Eating mushrooms such as shiitake can increase immune activity.
Untreated sleep issues decrease essential levels of natural killer cells. Get help with these conditions to bolster your immunity.
Eat your fruits and veggies
They help prevent nutrient deficiencies associated with sluggish immunity.
Support your immunity with regular moderate-intensity exercise.