Immunotherapy Adds Potential Treatment For Those With Cancer

January 14, 2020

ThedaCare Provider Explains Possible Benefit

APPLETON, Wis. – Women in the advanced stages of breast cancer have a treatment that could potentially help them live longer. It is called immunotherapy and it uses a person’s own immune system to fight cancer. 

“It is difficult to slow tumor growth with chemotherapy alone in patients with advanced breast cancer,” said Alexander Starr, MD, oncologist and hematologist at ThedaCare Cancer Care in Appleton. “Now special combinations of drugs, chemotherapy plus medications that may build the immune system to spot and destroy cancerous cells, are showing remarkable results.”

Dr. Starr cites a recent large-scale study which focused on using immunotherapy for women with advanced-stage breast cancer.

“The study showed a decrease in the risk of the disease worsening or death by 40% when patients were given the immune building medication compared to chemotherapy alone,” he explained. “This likely halted the progression of cancer by two additional months and extended the life of the patient by an additional 10 months.”

Other trials now look at administering the treatment earlier in the disease state. Oncologists believe this might lead to an even longer life for patients with metastatic advanced breast cancer. ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center plans to recruit patients for this national phase III study in 2020.  

When a woman is diagnosed with advanced metastatic “triple negative” breast cancer, she does not express the hormones progesterone and estrogen and shows high levels of the protein HER2. About 15 percent of people with breast cancer have a “triple negative” diagnosis. Most patients with a defect in the breast cancer type 1 gene (BRCA1), which acts as a tumor suppressor, are triple negative. 

Added benefits can come with immunotherapy. Unlike like standard chemotherapy, which often leaves patients sick, immunotherapy can reduce side effects such as nausea and hair loss. Still, it is important to understand the other potential effects of immunotherapy.

“Your immune system becomes hyper as it works extra hard to fight cancer,” Dr. Starr explained. “There are concerns about inflammatory conditions, such as non-infectious pneumonia and hepatitis.”

Dr. Starr says these side effects are rare and treatable.

The past few decades, immunotherapy has been used effectively in the fight against other cancers – mainly with the lungs, kidneys, head and neck, skin (melanoma) and pancreas. Moving forward, it is expected to become “standard of care” for patients in the advanced stages of breast cancer. 

“Immunotherapy can be a main piece in the future of cancer care,” Dr. Starr added. “It helps us individualize care, especially for hard to treat cancers. As a physician, it’s exciting to offer my patients with advanced stage breast cancer this new treatment and the hope of greater survival.”