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what is immunotherapy for cancer

Cancer Immunotherapy — Part 1: The Basics

Cancer immunotherapy uses the immune system or the body’s defense system to fight cancer. Before learning more about immunotherapy, you may want to read a quick overview of how the immune system works.

Immune System Overview

The immune system protects the body against diseases. Immune system cells called antigen-presenting cells patrol the body. When antigen-presenting cells find foreign cells, such as viruses and bacteria, they send a signal to special cells called T-cells, which attack the foreign cells. After all foreign cells have been killed, an immune system regulator called a checkpoint sends a signal to T-cells to stop their attack. This prevents T-cells from killing healthy cells.

What is immunotherapy for cancer?

Cancer cells are different than viruses and bacteria because they disguise themselves as normal, healthy cells. Antigen-presenting cells are not able to detect cancer cells, so a signal is never sent to T-cells. Thus, cancer cells multiply and spread and cancer progresses into more serious stages.

Immunotherapy stops immune cells from being tricked. There are different types of cancer immunotherapy. Each helps the immune system recognize cancer cells and start an immune response against them. This treatment approach is new and promising because it uses the body’s own resources, rather than surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, to treat cancer. In many cases, this means there may be less unwanted treatment side effects.

How effective is immunotherapy?

Cancer immunotherapy may help cancer go into remission, or even cure it in some cases.  It may not work for all patients and all cancers. And because it is a relatively new treatment option, more research needs to be done to determine exactly which patients can benefit.

Still, there are certain tests that doctors can perform that may help them decide if immunotherapy can help a patient. Protein level tests and genetic tests are the two most common. High protein levels and DNA changes in cancer cells may predict that cancer will respond well to immunotherapy.

What is the difference between immunotherapy and other types of cancer treatments?

Each cancer treatment option works differently. The five treatment options are:

  1. Surgery. Cancer tissue is surgically removed.
  2. Radiation therapy. X-rays break DNA in cancer cells, which prevents them from growing and spreading.
  3. Chemotherapy. Drugs destroy cancer cells.
  4. Targeted therapy. Drugs target cancer cells’ genes and proteins to stop them from working properly, which can stop cells from growing, or even kill them.
  5. Immunotherapy. Different types of treatments are used to start an immune response against cancer cells.

Certain treatments may be used for certain cancers. In some cases, multiple treatments may be used.

Distinguishing features of each type of cancer treatment are:

  • Surgery may be effective for some early stage cancers
  • Radiation therapy and chemotherapy destroy healthy cells, which may cause unpleasant side effects
  • Targeted therapy and immunotherapy may only be effective for some patients and some cancers

A board-certified and fellowship-trained oncologist works with patients to find the most appropriate treatment option(s).

What types of cancer can be treated with immunotherapy?

Cancer immunotherapy has been tested on many of the most common types of cancer. An oncologist may recommend immunotherapy to treat:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Prostate cancer
  • Small cell lung cancer
  • Melanoma/ Skin cancer

Research is being done to test immunotherapy on other types of cancer.

How is immunotherapy treatment given?

Cancer immunotherapy treatment is given at an oncologist’s office or an outpatient hospital unit. An overnight hospital stay is not necessary. Treatment may be administered:

  • Intravenously
  • Orally
  • Topically (for skin cancers)
  • Intravesical (through the bladder)

The patient’s response to treatment is closely monitored. Physical exams, blood tests, and scans are performed to see if cancer cells are responding to treatment.

How long does it take for immunotherapy to work for cancer?

Depending on the type of immunotherapy, treatment may be given daily, weekly, or monthly. There may be a break in treatment to give cells a chance to rest. Another therapy cycle may start after the break. The number of cycles a patient receives depends on the type of treatment and the type of the cancer. In some cases, immunotherapy may be combined with other cancer treatments.

The amount of time it takes for cancer immunotherapy to work is different for every patient. As previously mentioned, each patient’s response to treatment is closely monitored. Patients visit their oncologist frequently while undergoing treatment. The oncologist asks the patient questions about their symptoms and health. Answers to the questions and the medical study results give the oncologist important information about how well the immunotherapy is working.

More about cancer immunotherapy

This article is the first of a three-article series on cancer immunotherapy. In the next article, you will learn more about different types of immunotherapy in detail.


National Cancer Institute: “Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer

Cleveland Clinic: “Immunotherapy: Is It Right for Your Cancer Type?

WebMD: “How Immunotherapy Works to Kill Cancer Cells

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What About Breast Cancer in Men

What About Breast Cancer in Men

When we think of breast cancer, the prevailing thought is that it only applies to women. This, however, is not true. Men also experience breast cancer, even though it is much less common with only approximately 1% of all breast cancers occurring in men. In 2019, about 2,670 men are expected to be diagnosed with this disease. For men, the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000.

Though men do not have what we typically think of as breasts from a physical perspective, they do still have breast tissue. Men typically will not grow entire breasts because of the lack of breast-stimulating hormones. As a result, their breast tissue usually stays flat and small. Men can sometimes develop real breast gland tissue because they take certain medicines or have abnormal hormone levels.

What Increases the Odds of Male Breast Cancer

  • When the man is between the ages of 60 and 70
  • A close female relative has breast cancer
  • History of radiation exposure of the chest
  • Enlargement of breasts (called gynecomastia) from drug or hormone treatments, or even some infections and poisons
  • Taking estrogen
  • When the man has Klinefelter’s syndrome, a rare genetic condition
  • Severe liver disease, called cirrhosis
  • Diseases of the testicles such as mumps orchitis, a testicular injury, or an undescended testicle

Symptoms of Breast Cancer in Men

Breast cancer symptoms in men are similar to those in women. A lump in the breast area is a symptom of breast cancers in men. Other symptoms can include nipple abnormalities such as inversion or nipple discharge which could even include blood. When this happens it is important to see your physician as soon as possible to be properly assessed to avoid any delay in diagnosis.

Diagnosis and Treatment

We use the same techniques that are used to diagnose breast cancer in women to diagnose men. These include physical exams, mammography, and biopsies. In addition, we employ the same forms of treatment for female breast cancer — surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, biological therapy, and hormone therapy — to treat breast cancer in men. The one major difference is that men with breast cancer respond much better to hormone therapy than women do. About 90% of male breast cancers have hormone receptors, meaning that hormone therapy can work in most men to treat the cancer.

Hunterdon Hematology and Oncology, as part of the Hunterdon Regional Breast Care Program (HRBCP), specializes in a coordinated approach to breast cancer care, in both men and women. If you or someone you know is in need of breast cancer care, contact us today to schedule a consultation


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How Yoga Can Help Breast Cancer Patients

How Yoga Can Help Breast Cancer Patients

Breast cancer remains the number-one most common type of cancer diagnosed among women. In the United States, about one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime.

Cancer research studies have shown that having higher levels of physical activity actually lowers the risk of developing several types of cancer, including breast cancer. Getting an adequate amount of physical activity can reduce levels of hormones such as estrogen that have been known to be affiliated with the development of breast cancer. Once you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, discovering what kind of physical activity or exercise is best can be a challenge. Yoga is one way women can get the right amount of exercise at any stage of their breast cancer treatment. While it is not meant to be an alternative to standard treatments that your doctor may recommend (like surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and hormonal therapy), it can be a correlative therapeutic strategy.

Women with breast cancer often undergo a lot of stress and by focusing on both the mind and the body, yoga can provide women with physical, mental, and emotional benefits. Studies have shown that practicing yoga can improve fatigue and quality of sleep, reduces stress, strengthen physical functioning, and enhance overall quality of life. Low impact stretching poses and movements that are typical of a yoga session can be relaxing and allow an improved sense of well-being.

Yoga exercises can be tailored to a person’s needs or limitations too, but before attempting any form of exercise, including yoga, make sure to talk to your doctor. The cancer specialists at Hunterdon Hematology Oncology are dedicated not only to the effective treatment of cancers, but also to making sure that these treatments are done in a way that impact your overall quality of life as minimally as possible.

Our cancer specialists are dedicated to making strides in the fight against cancer. Hunterdon Hematology Oncology is a home to the nationally recognized regional breast-care program at the Hunterdon Regional Cancer Center. The Hunterdon Health and Wellness Centers offer an array of yoga classes and also now have a certified Cancer Exercise Specialist who may be able to build the right type of exercise program for you. For more information including timings and rates, please contact Beth Merola (Cancer Exercise Specialist/Certified Personal Trainer) at either of the Hunterdon Health and Wellness Center locations by calling WhiteHouse Station at 908- 534-7600 and Clinton at 908-735-6884.

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Why You Shouldn’t Wear Deodorant When Getting a Mammogram

A mammogram is an important step in taking care of yourself and your breasts. Women trust Hunterdon Hematology Oncology as part of the Hunterdon Regional Breast Care Program (HRBCP) with regular mammograms and their overall breast health.

The mammograms done at one of several affiliated facilities use a digital format instead of the traditional film mammography you may be used to. This allows the mammogram to be available immediately. A digital image can also be altered and enhanced to allow a more accurate diagnosis and decreases the need for repeat imaging. This information can then be quickly assessed by your medical oncologist at Hunterdon Hematology Oncology and also other potential members of your breast care team which may include a breast surgeon.

Below are some things to expect when getting your mammogram: :

  • You’ll have to undress above the waist to get a mammogram. You will be given wia wrap to use for your comfort.
  • For your privacy, you and a nurse are the only ones in the room during the procedure.
  • During the procedure, the nurse will position your breasts for the mammogram. They  will have to flatten your breast on the machine’s plate so that a high-quality digital picture can be obtained..
  • Due to use of digital imaging, the procedure is much quicker and, you will have limited discomfort compared to a film mammogram. Let your nurse know immediately if you are experiencing any discomfort.

Many of our patients aren’t aware that you should not wear deodorant when getting a mammogram. Most deodorants and antiperspirants contain aluminum. Aluminum blocks your sweat ducts and prevents you from perspiring. The amount of aluminum in the average bar of deodorant is small, however, even a small amount is enough to interfere with a mammogram.

Aluminum particles in deodorant look like tiny white dots on a mammogram. These dots mimic calcifications, which can be an early sign of breast cancer. Aluminum particles make it difficult to distinguish deodorant aluminum from calcifications.

Regular mammograms  are important for your breast health. Here at Hunterdon Hematology Oncology we are happy, as part of the Hunterdon Regional Breast Care program, to ensure that our patients have this coordinated quickly and with ease.

Contact your medical oncologist for any concerns or questions regarding your mammogram. Our staff is also happy to help our patients schedule at one of several local imaging facilities, contact us today.

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