Why Immunotherapy Might Be Your Cancer-fighting Superhero

Imagine giving your immune system a superhero suit that’s tailored to fight your cancer. Immunotherapy teams up with your immune system to do just that.

“I think it’s the cat’s meow – it’s the best there is. Immunotherapy came along at just the right time.” – Karl, diagnosed with bladder cancer

“You have cancer” are words that no one wants to hear, but unfortunately, it’s a reality that many people face in their lifetime. The good news is there are more treatment options available to us now than ever before. Treatment for cancer can vary from surgery to chemotherapy and more. But have you heard of immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses the body’s own defense system to fight cancer cells. The immune system is an incredible network of cells and tissues that are constantly on guard, protecting us from all sorts of diseases and infections. But sometimes, cancer cells can slip through the cracks and multiply, causing tumors and damaging our bodies.

That’s where immunotherapy comes in. It’s like giving your immune system a superhero suit to fight cancer cells. It may sound like science fiction, but immunotherapy is a real cancer treatment that’s gaining popularity and proving highly effective in treating some cancers. These include:


Watch this 2-minute video to understand immunotherapy basics: what it is, how it works, and if it might be an option for you.

There are many types of immunotherapies, but the most common are checkpoint inhibitors.

Checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that assist T cells in fighting cancer. T cells are special white blood cells that recognize and attack cells that are harming your body, like cancer. Think of your T cells like little detectives, scanning the body for abnormal cells and eliminating them before they become a threat. Sometimes, cancer cells are sneaky and disguise themselves, making it harder for T cells to detect them.

Checkpoint inhibitors basically remove the disguise. This allows T cells to see cancer cells. Then, the T cells attack them and prevent them from spreading.

Learn About 5 Major Types of Immunotherapy

 

For most patients, immunotherapy is generally well tolerated, with fewer side effects than chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Of course, every person’s experience is different, but in general, immunotherapy is less harsh on the body and can lead to better outcomes.

This 2-minute video explains common side effects of immunotherapy, rare side effects, and side effects from combined treatments.

Immunotherapy can also be combined with other treatments like chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation therapy to create a synergistic effect. This means that multiple treatments working together can be more effective than any one treatment alone. It’s like two superheroes teaming up to defeat a villain.

One of the exciting things about immunotherapy is that it’s still a relatively new treatment. Researchers are continually discovering new ways to use it. For example, some studies have shown that immunotherapy can be used to treat certain types of cancer that were previously considered untreatable.

Worried About Treatment Costs?

New cancer treatments like immunotherapy can be expensive. Talk to your healthcare team about the cost of treatment options you are considering. Also ask if clinical trials are an option. If you have questions or concerns, call our Helpline at 888-793-9355. We offer free, personalized navigation for anyone impacted by cancer.

Of course, like any other cancer treatment, immunotherapy is not magic. It doesn’t work for everyone. It’s not a cure for all types of cancer. But it offers a promising new approach to cancer treatment — one that harnesses the power of the immune system in a way that was previously considered impossible.

So, what can you do if you or someone you know is facing cancer? As a first step, talk to your healthcare team. They can help you determine if immunotherapy is right for you. You can also do your own research but be sure to use reputable sources and consult with medical professionals about the information you gather.

It can be challenging to navigate cancer, but with the right treatment and support, many people live active, healthy lives after a diagnosis. So don’t give up hope, and don’t be afraid to explore new options like immunotherapy.

In this 4-minute video, Karl talks about his experience with immunotherapy and bladder cancer.

Peer Support for Black Cancer Patients Opens Doors to Clinical Trials Diversity

two seated black men talking

Stock photo posed by models: Getty Images

Black and African American cancer patients represent only 5% of clinical trial participants. Our peer support program is working to change that by increasing clinical trial awareness & knowledge among Black and African American cancer patients like Cae.

 

“I was able to get the voice back that I feel like I lost throughout my whole deal with cancer.”

— Cae, Peer Clinical Trials Support Program participant

 

Existing barriers make it difficult for many underrepresented communities to participate in cancer clinical trials. Improving clinical trials diversity is extremely important. Everyone should have the chance to benefit equally from new, possibly life-saving treatments.

We know that knowledge, awareness, and trusted peer support can increase clinical trial participation. Our Peer Clinical Trials Support Program helps Black and African American cancer patients learn more about clinical trials through one-on-one support from an experienced Peer Specialist ― a Black or African American cancer patient or survivor who has participated in a cancer clinical trial.

In the following Q&A, we talk with Cae, a cancer patient who participated in our Peer Clinical Trials Support Program. Cae shares a few things she learned from her Peer Specialist and why she ultimately decided to join a cancer clinical trial:

 

1. Could you briefly describe your cancer diagnosis?  

I was originally diagnosed with CLL [chronic lymphocytic leukemia] in March of 2021. I got diagnosed with breast cancer in October of 2021. So, the leukemia metastasized and affected my left breast. I haven’t had any surgery yet, but I am actively still doing chemotherapy.

My diagnosis was a surprise with the breast cancer because I didn’t have any symptoms or anything. The only thing I had were lumps, and I thought the lumps were caused by the chemotherapy I was doing because of the leukemia.

When I finally brought it to my doctor’s attention, he had me get tests done. I can’t tell you how many tests I had done. And then finally he said yes, it’s breast cancer. It was just kind of shocking because, at the time, I was only 25, so it was very surprising for me.

 

2. After your diagnosis, did anyone talk with you about cancer clinical trials as an option? Or did you experience other barriers to learning about clinical trial opportunities? 

My biggest barrier honestly — and this is the reason why my doctor never brought trials or anything to me — is because a lot of the trials were local in my area, [and] insurance doesn’t cover the trials.* So, there are trials that either the facility has to pay for you to do, or you have to pay the facility in order to participate. And I have horrible insurance. That was a barrier that I already had — just getting my basic needs taken care of.

So, my doctor never brought up the idea of trials because he didn’t want me to have the idea of financial hardship with having to deal with that, if there was a possibility that facility didn’t offer [to pay to get a treatment done] because it’s experimental.

*Editor’s Note: Insurance coverage for clinical trial participation varies based on an individual’s insurance company and policy. Clinical trials usually cover the cost of participation. Some individuals need to travel to the facility where the trial is held if it is not available where they live. Coverage for travel costs may vary by trial.  

 

3. How did you find out about our Peer Clinical Trials Support Program?  

I was just looking online for different support programs that could offer me any type of help or resources or information to help me. Because I got diagnosed late in my CLL, and also kind of late stages into my breast cancer, I already know there are only limited options available for me.

I was just really interested in finding out, “Okay, what else is there past just what my doctor can do, more than just what I know.”

And I just stumbled across [the Peer Clinical Trials Support Program] and sent an email and said, “Hey, I want more information if you guys can give me anything to help me.” And they called me, and honestly, it was one of the most relieving calls I got during this whole process and dealing with cancer.

 

4. In this program, Peer Specialists use their own experience as a Black or African American cancer patient and cancer clinical trial participant to support others who are interested in learning about cancer clinical trials. What were some questions you had about clinical trials? And what were some helpful things you learned from your Peer Specialist? 

I didn’t originally have specific questions. But they were able to open the door for dialogue with me to where I could say, “Okay, well, I do have a question.”

And most of my questions were, “What are trials? What are things I should look for in trials that are good and trials that are bad? How do I know if this trial is a legit trial, and they’re not just trying to take my information or my blood samples?”

My Peer Specialist was able to explain to me what to look for and how I could look on a website where they have all the trials* and they’ll tell you which ones are open and who’s doing what, who’s the lead investigator.

I found that helpful because I could actually fact check and look into it: What are they doing? Who are they? [That] was helpful for me because one of my biggest worries with getting into a trial was being taken advantage of, or not knowing if I’m actually being a part of something that may help, or are these people just trying to use me as a guinea pig and they aren’t doing anything helpful.

*Editor’s Note: The National Cancer Institute and ClinicalTrials.gov are 2 well-known resources that provide information and details about clinical trials for all types of cancer. Most clinical trials are listed on both sites.

 

“I didn’t originally have specific questions. But they were able to open the door for dialogue with me to where I could say, ‘Okay, well, I do have a question.’”

— Cae, Peer Clinical Trials Support Program participant

 

5. After taking part in this program, you went on to join a cancer clinical trial. How did this program help support your decision-making process? 

It made me more confident in my choice, that I was making a good choice. It made me feel like I have a right to voice my opinion. I’m still actively in trial now, [and] it gave me my voice where, if something’s going on, I actually talk to the people that are working with me and [say], “Hey, I’m having this symptom” or “I’m having this going on,” without feeling like I can’t say anything or I just have to accept how it is and  deal with it.

With this support system, my Peer Specialist [said] if something is bothering you, let people know. I was able to get the voice back that I feel like I lost throughout my whole deal with cancer.

A big part of me lost my voice because I felt defeated, because so often doctors and people weren’t listening to me or didn’t take what I had to say seriously. And so, I felt like, okay, if they don’t, nobody’s not. So, with that, it built my confidence back a lot just to be able to interact and talk with the trial experts.

 

“It made me more confident in my choice, that I was making a good choice. It made me feel like I have a right to voice my opinion.”

— Cae, Peer Clinical Trials Support Program participant

 

6. Are there any words of support you would like to share with other Black or African American cancer patients who may be considering participating in a cancer clinical trial?   

Don’t let your previous interactions with specialists or doctors discourage you from having a better experience. Every doctor and specialist is not the same, and you will find someone who will listen to you, because you are worthy of having someone hear your voice.

Discover More About Our Peer Clinical Trials Support Program

Watch this short documentary “How Does a Clinical Trial Benefit ME?” — the first video in our new docuseries “Justified Medical Mistrust: Acknowledging the Past to Change the Future,” addressing myths, truths, & concerns that Black and African American patients and their caregivers often experience when considering cancer clinical trials.