World Cancer Day, which we mark on Monday, is always riddled with pain for the ones we have lost to the horrid disease, sombre voices for those who empathise with cancer patients and a prayer for those hoping to remain in remission or never to be diagnosed with the illness.
But, this year is unique, offering much needed relief and a sigh in relaxation for the world thanks to the two Nobel Prize laureates in Physiology or Medicine 2018. James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo individually discovered cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.
“The Times” called it “The end of chemo?”, the New York Times asked “Could immunotherapy offer a cure for cancer?” This very paper, through the New York Times publication, also asked, “How can we strengthen the immune system to fight cancer?”
The greatest concern for any human being is not just being diagnosed with cancer, but cancer that is too advanced to be treated, becoming all but a death sentence. This may soon be a thing of the past thanks to last year’s Nobel Prize laureates who have created much hype around the “cure” for cancer; immunotherapy. So, how does immunotherapy work that it differs from other forms of cancer treatment?
In a very comprehensive report by “The Times”, an immunotherapy drug ipilimumab is described as a checkpoint inhibitors or “brakes” unleashing the body’s own T-cells, which are a type of white blood cells that fight malignancies. Without the immunotherapy drug, the cancer could put on the “brakes” on the surface of the T-cells that stop the body’s immune response to the cancer. Checkpoint inhibitors thus take off the brakes allowing T-cells to withstand an attack against cancer cells. Essentially, your once frail body that was on the brink due to cancer is now revitalised and fights to save you from cancer when coupled with immunotherapy. This is the discovery made by Nobel laureate Allison. The drug aside, there are two other forms of immunotherapy, cancer vaccines and adoptive T-cell transfer, where a patient’s T-cells are engineered outside the body and injected back.
Results so far, clinical trials have shown immunotherapy works in less than half of the patients but, when it does, there is long term remission. In particular there has been long term remission and possible cure in several patients with metastatic cancer. But, like any other medical treatment out there, immunotherapy has its side- effects including an overactive immune response leading to autoimmune reactions.
This medical success may not be perfect yet, but it has offered the possibility and hope that we can survive terminal cancer. Some of us may wish immunotherapy had been discovered sooner and was readily available to save our loved ones, but let’s take a moment to appreciate this impeccable life-saving intervention.
Once immunotherapy research and clinical trials are brought to fruition, we will no longer have to undergo severe radiation and chemotherapy that leaves you feeling worse off with each session. No longer will you or your loved ones have to sit through the heart breaking news of being informed your cancer is too advanced for any treatment to work anymore. Gone will be the days of being put under end of life care and checking into a hospice in readiness of the impending end that lingers. Families will no longer feel at a total loss and riddled with guilt because they didn’t pick up on any of the symptoms and in hindsight that was their only call to action. And most of all, we will no longer have to say painful premature goodbyes. The consequential loss from cancer that grips those left behind in depression and debt from continuous medical interventions will be an afterthought. We will be the generation that conquered and survived cancer. Parents will live to see their grandchildren. Mothers will be witnesses at their children's weddings as fathers walk daughters down the aisle. Babies will grow to be adults that successfully accomplish their purpose in life to the delight of many.
Yet, until that moment of immunotherapy efficacy, we remain accountable for the condition of our bodies. We are acutely aware and beyond well informed that our lifestyle choices increase the chances of being diagnosed with cancer. What are you doing about that smoking, high level of alcohol consumption, lack of exercise? We all have the benefit of avoiding certain cancers. It thus defies logic that you would put your health and only body at risk of avoidable unnecessary death. Trite as it may sound, take precaution to save your life.
At the risk of ending on a tell off, as we mark World Cancer Day on Monday, remembering our loved ones, let's be hopeful the cure for cancer is imminent and imagine the possibility of a world without cancer deaths.
The writer works with an international airline on dispute resolution; [email protected]